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Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP’s Chrism Mass Homily: Liquid Gold

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Newly-consecrated Oil of the Sick, Oil of Catechumens (for baptisms) and Oil for Holy Chrism. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Newly-consecrated Oil of the Sick, Oil of Catechumens (for baptisms) and Oil for Holy Chrism. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Liquid gold. Homer’s ancient name for olive oil[i] has made a comeback, following a surge in prices across the Mediterranean.[ii] Drought and a bacterial infection have seen global production fall this past year and the price of a litre of olive oil rise from €5 to as much as €20. Last week it was reported that olive oil is now the most shoplifted product in Spain, surpassing even razor blades, alcohol and ham, and shops are resorting to chains and security alarms to protect it. In Greece and Italy, farmers are now arming themselves to prevent nighttime bandits taking their product. And criminal rings are now stealing, diluting and reselling olive oil on the lucrative black—or gold—market, as if it were a narcotic.

Ours is not the first civilisation to treasure the fruit of the olive. It’s versatility for culinary, hygienic, cosmetic and medicinal uses has been appreciated for millennia. In Greek mythology it was the goddess Athena who created the olive tree and bestowed the first seedlings on her polis as a sign of her bounty and wisdom; this secured her victory over Poseidon and her position as protectress of Athens.[iii] The Greeks used olive oil for currency, religion, healthcare and athletics: Olympians were anointed before competing and crowned with olive haloes if successful. Olives and their oil were traded throughout the Mediterranean and oil lamps and amphorae are amongst the most common archaeological finds. Andalusia became the olive basket of the Roman world—and the world ever since—and Spaniards took the product to the world.

The olive and its oil were a many-layered symbol for Jews and Christians. If the primary uses were in cooking and lighting, beautifying and honouring, it also served as a metaphor in the sacred writings. A dove brought Noah a freshly plucked olive twig, evidence the flood had subsided, and the olive branch has been a symbol of peace ever since. The olive was also a symbol of blessing—for the bounty of its fruit. A sign of family—for shoots at the base of the tree grow into new ones. A symbol of generosity—as harvesters left gleanings for widows, orphans and strangers. A sign of communion—as the wild stock of the Gentiles was grafted onto the cultivated olive tree of the Jews. And a symbol of resurrection—for when felled olive trees can sprout again.[iv]

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It also had its place in the Jewish cult. Olive branches were used for making booths and waving in processions, and the oil for lighting holy places, anointing priests, prophets and kings, consecrating sacred objects and ritual paraphernalia, making sacrifice, and anointing the dead. The ‘chrism’ was perfumed with a balsam of frankincense, myrrh, cassia or cinnamon. This added to the fragrance of the cult and set the person or object aside for a sacred purpose.[v]

In our first reading today, the Prophet associates the anointing of priests with their being ordered to proclaiming salvation, binding broken hearts, liberating captives, and rewarding the faithful (Isa 61:1-9). In our Gospel Jesus adopts the text as His mission statement (Lk 4:17-18) and He later compared Himself with a Good Samaritan tending bruised humanity with healing balm (Lk 10:25-37). This foreshadowed His call and that of the apostle James for the priests of the Church to anoint the sick with oil and prayer (Mk 6:13; Jas 5:14f).

Priests of God: your words of absolution and blessing, of challenge and consolation, are the oil of gladness (cf. Ps 45:7; Isa 61:1-3; Heb 1:9; Acts 10:38; 13:52). By them you do as oil does: you feed and enlighten, beautify and honour. You offer “the good oil”, “burn the midnight oil”, “pour oil on troubled waters”. Yours is the oil of those prudent virgins who stocked up and were ready to enter the wedding banquet when the Bridegroom arrived (Mt 25:1-13). And in the banquet hall of the Church, you witness to all those things that oil represents in our tradition: peace, blessing, family, generosity, communion, resurrection…

Priests of Jesus Christ, thrice anointed with the chrism of salvation, most recently on the hands to make them fitting for the service of the sacraments: you lead the faithful in procession, consecration and sacrifice. You anoint them as “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a consecrated nation, a people for the Lord’s possession” (1Pet 2:9). You proclaim salvation to the lost, bind up the wounded, free the trapped, comfort the weary. You are consecrated for holiness and to build up your flock in holiness (cf. Lev 11:44).

Priests of God, dispensers of liquid graces more precious than gold: by the waters of regeneration, you make pagans into Christians, sinners into saints, the lost into the saved. By the wine of the Eucharist, you offer the holy sacrifice to God, making fruit of the vine into blood of the divine, and communicating the Immortal to mere mortals. By holy oils you claim catechumens for Christ, confirmands for the Holy Spirit, seminarians for the sacred priesthood, the sick for healing, the dying for eternal life. And these three gracious liquids are all products of Christ’s triduum: oil that we bless this Chrism morn, wine we will consecrate especially tonight, and water we will sanctify at the Easter vigil.

But Holy Week is especially oleaginous. Our Palm Sunday celebrations began with Christ being hailed by a jubilant crowd waving palms and laying olive branches in His way (Mk 11:1-10). Then we chanted the Passion of St Mark (Mk chs 14 & 15), which opened with a woman of Bethany anointing Jesus. At the Last Supper we saw the disciples dip bread into the oily dish of paschal lamb and hummus. Then Jesus made His way to His favourite olive grove to pray. There He was arrested by light of oil lamps and torches. And at the last, myrrh-bearing women marked His burial plot, that they might return to embalm Him after the festival.

Priests of Jesus Christ, bearers of the holy oils: this week is yours in particular, the week in which you lead the rejoicing crowd into the House of God singing hosannas; the week when you bless and receive oils with which to anoint the Lord’s body, the Church; the week when you join the apostles at His table for the sacred meal, at His altar for the eucharistic sacrifice; the week when you pray and keep watch with Him in the olive grove; the week when you join the myrrh-bearing women in witnessing His crucifixion, reverencing His Body, and hoping for life beyond the grave!


[i] Maria Clodoveo et al. “In the ancient world, virgin olive oil was called ‘liquid gold’ by Homer and ‘the great healer’ by Hippocrates.  Why has this mythic image been forgotten?” Food Research International 62 (Aug 2014): 1062-68.

[ii] Andrea Vogt, “Olive oil theft soars as organized gangs target ‘liquid gold’,” The Age 11 March 2024; “Spain’s supermarket thieves covet olive oil as prices surge,” Financial Times 8 March 2024; “Price of olive oil up 50% in one year,” Eurostat 27 February 2024; Michelle Tchea, “Why olive oil prices are soaring and what to do about it,” BBC 19 December 2023.

[iii] Simon Roots, “The olive tree and the rise of Athens,” Olive Oil Times 16 January 2024.

[iv] Oil used in cooking (e.g. Ex 29:2; 1Kgs 17:12-16; 2Kgs 4:1-7; Ezek 16:13), lighting (Ex 27:20; Mt 25:1-13), beautifying and honouring (1Kgs 5:11; Ps 23:5; 104:15; Esther 2:12; Mt 6:17; Lk 7:46). A dove brings a freshly plucked olive leaf to Noah after the flood: Gen 8:11. The olive as a symbol of plenty and so of blessing or curse: Dt 8:7-8; 28:38-40; Isa 41:19; Jer 31:12; Hos 1:11; 2:8; Mic 6:15; Joel 1:10; 2:19-24; Heb 1:9. Olive shoots as a metaphor for family: e.g. Ps 128:3. Harvesters exhorted to leave gleanings for sojourners, widows and orphans: e.g. Dt 24:20; Isa 17:6; cf. Ex 23:11. The felled olive sprouting anew: e.g. Job 14:7-9. Gentiles grafted onto a cultivated olive tree of Israel: Rom 11:13-25.

[v] Olive branches for booths and processions: Neh 8:15; Mt 21:8; Mk 11:8. Oil in temple lamps: Ex 27:20; Lev 24:2-4. Oil for anointing priests, prophets and kings: Ex 25:6; 29:7,21; Lev 8:12; 1Sam 10:1; 16:1,13; 1Kgs 1:39; 5:1; 19:16; Ps 89:20; 133:2; cf. Lk 4:18. Oil for consecrating sacred objects and ritual paraphernalia: Gen 28:18; Ex 30:22-33; 40:9-10; 1Sam Ps 23:5; 104:15; 133:2. Oil for sacrifices: Ex 29:40; 30:24; Lev 2:1,15; 6:15; Num 6:15; Neh 13:5. Oil for anointing the dead: Mk 16:1-20; 2Cor 2:14-16). ‘Chrism’ perfumed with a balsam of myrrh, cinnamon or cassia: Ex 30:23-25; Ps 45:8; Song 1:3,12; Jn 12:3.

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