In churchland we maintain some remarkably odd practices. Take Mothering Sunday, for instance. An odd name for Mother’s Day, I presumed? Nope. Last week my priest buddy, less green and more intense than myself, sent me a text announcing that I needed to find the small bottles of oil in the college chapel used for anointing the sick, the dying, and the newly baptized, and bring them to the cathedral to be refilled.
No problem, I thought to myself. Just grab those bottles and take them to the church. Wrong.
It turns out that Mothering Sunday is one of those ancient practices we continue to observe which look like it’s been pulled from historical fiction. As I followed my friend’s instructions, down to the finest detail, I felt like I was LARPing rather than doing my job. The process was fascinating.
The oils left from several years ago had gone completely rancid, sticking to the bottom of the bottle like old honey. Nothing new could be added until the old had been removed. I called my mentor. “You’re sure I can’t just pour this down the sink?” I asked, a little whiny. Nope. The oil had to be burned.
How does one burn rancid oil out of the bottom of a tiny glass jar, you’re wondering to yourself?? After several failed ideas and consultations, I came up with a solid plan. Squatting in front of my fire place, I carefully wiped out each jar with a rag and lit the rags on fire, consuming all the oil. As I watched the flame soar up from the earth, I felt like I was sitting on holy ground. Here was sacred oil, sent out into the world to be a blessing to the vulnerable, being returned to God in fire and ashes.
At the cathedral service, the new oil was blessed, that it would be comfort and hope to those to be anointed, spread out across our diocese in all the diversity of their homes and lives. I thought of how elemental it is to take something as common as oil and make it into something sacred which nourishes community and draws us into the life of the Holy One. And just as oil brings flavour to food and fills our bodily cravings, so now this oil is sent out to flavour our life in spirit.
This Christian tradition of ours, with its ancient rituals and mysterious rites, has an intriguing way of mixing the sacred with the profane, using the stuff of normal days to usher us into relationship with the Divine. Quite unlike the powerful top-down institution it has often become, the call of Christianity has always been to affirm the goodness of everyday life and to find God in all the small and normal places. There’s a reason our God took on humanity and pitched his tent among us.
In a culture where everything is disposable and even our most valuable possessions are made to break (as I write on a cracked computer screen!) there’s something life-giving about investing sacred qualities in physical things. Sure, I could have just dumped out my oil and no one would have known or cared. I could simply anoint a dying woman with oil from my kitchen. But when I am careful to return to the earth by fire that which has been consecrated for holy use, I am declaring my belief that God inhabits our time and space. God comes and dwells among us and uses the stuff of our lives to create life and mystery and hope.
In a world where even human beings are treated like commodities, the blessing of oil says that the simplest things are chosen and used by God. The oil is a tangible reminder that we are never alone in our journey or sickness or even in death- that the Holy One comes and dwells with us just as Jesus walked among us on this same dusty earth.
I’m struck by how the burning of the old and the blessing of the new mirrors my own messy life. That old oil can stick to me like crystalized honey sometimes, but it has to be burned away before it can be filled with bright new oil. The old might not be bad exactly, but it is not the best. It has grown stagnant and it is difficult to bless others with that old oil.
But just as the Holy Spirit dwells with the sacred oil, so the Holy Spirit dwells with me, filling me up to be a gift which overflows Christ onto the world. It is not, of course, the oil that is sacred. The oil comes from Superstore! But it’s what God chooses to do with that oil that marks the story of our faith. And it’s an ancient story.