A Ritual Journey: Anointings of the Catechumens

Several weeks ago we had discussed various rites and practices that can supplement the catechumens’ primary experience of the Sunday liturgy of the Word. During the period of the catechumenate these can include: Minor Exorcisms; Blessings of the Catechumens; and Anointings of the Catechumens. We focus on the last of these in this post.

Anointing the body is undoubtedly foreign to many Lutherans. Unfortunately the medieval approach to the anointing of the sick devalued it to the point that it had become a rite only associated with death. As a result, anointing in general was never a primary practice within Lutheranism. Yet anointing—as a symbol of the pouring out of God’s Spirit upon the people of God and of the Spirit’s cleansing, healing, and restorative power—is a powerful symbol. It has significant biblical precedence with the anointing of prophets, priests, and kings in the Old Testament and the anointing of Jesus in the New Testament.

Anointing has been associated with the rites of the catechumenate since at least the fourth century. There are the pre-baptismal anointings in the period of Enlightenment (which we’ll discuss in Lent) and the post-baptismal anointings. But anointing can be done anytime throughout the catechumenate whenever desirable and helpful.

Anointing during the period of the Catechumenate is intended to convey through the Word the power of the Spirit for strength to engage in spiritual warfare. Martin Luther, in his 1523 epilogue to his new baptismal rite, indicates that spiritual warfare is one of the primary tasks of the church whenever someone is baptized: “Remember, therefore, that it is no joke to take sides against the devil and not only to drive him away from the little child, but to burden the child with such a mighty and lifelong enemy. Remember, too, that it is very necessary to aid the poor child with all your heart and strong faith, earnestly to intercede for him that God, in accordance with this prayer, would not only free him from the power of the devil, but also strengthen him, so that he may nobly resist the devil in life and death” (Luther’s Works, American Edition, Vol. 53, 97). The rite of anointing during the catechumenate provides a means for the church to enter into that spiritual battle. The RCIA indicates that the intent of anointing in this period is to symbolize the catechumens’ “need for God’s help and strength so that, undeterred by the bonds of the past and overcoming the opposition of the devil, they will forthrightly take the step of professing their faith and will hold fast to it unfalteringly throughout their lives” (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, 52). It symbolizes the pouring out of the Spirit through baptism and the Word throughout faith formation which strengthens the catechumen to renounce sin, evil, and the devil. As Shawn Madigan indicates it symbolizes “the Holy Spirit taking over one’s own spirit of egotism, violence, injustice, or whatever needs to be healed, strengthened, or overcome” (Shawn Madigan, Liturgical Spirituality and the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, 36). The anointing text in the RCIA, while not as strong as Madigan’s symbolic meaning indicates (see Madigan, Liturgical Spirituality and the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, 38), points toward the power of Christ in the battle against all evil: “We anoint you with the oil of salvation in the name of Christ our Savior. May he strengthen you with his power, who lives and reigns forever and ever. Amen” (RCIA, 54). These catechumenate anointings function as a precursor to the exorcisms in the period of the enlightenment in preparation for the change of lordship that comes in baptism.

Since this is a rite of the Word it could be performed by a pastor, but also by a lay catechist within a congregation’s catechumenate. It usually takes place within the context of reflection on the Word, usually after a homily in a service of the word. Traditionally the oil used is simple olive oil, not perfumed in any way, although there would be no prohibition in Lutheran circles for using some form of perfumed oil. The order of the rite in the RCIA is a) a prayer of exorcism (grounded in Luke 3, Jesus’ preaching in Nazareth), although other prayers of exorcism in the RCIA could be used; b) the anointing text spoken over all the catechumens (although it could be spoken over each catechumen individually; and c) the anointing of each catechumen traditionally on the breast (breastplate of righteousness) and/or both hands. Other parts of the body could be anointed at the request of the catechumen. Often the forehead is added to or substituted for the breast. It would be good to consider the use of the Lord’s Prayer in the rite if it is not used at any other point in the service. Consideration might be given to allowing the catechumen to name any weaknesses, sins, or struggles, either silently or aloud, or to consider the use of some right of confession. A blessing can conclude the rite.

The catechumen enters into a spiritual battle with sin, evil, and satan when they engage faith formation. The rite of anointing embodies the spiritual strength that comes from the Spirit through the Word to engage that battle with faith, hope, and strength.