Anointed for Why?

Today we're going to talk about anointing.

Like so many other of the highly symbolic actions of our religious traditions, anointing takes something relatively simple and packs it full so full of religious and theological meaning as to make it almost impossible to deal with. Thus, the oddity of having an obscure and ancient custom trending on contemporary social media is too good to ignore.

At a very basic level, anointing is the dabbing, or pouring of oil, salve, balm or resin onto another person for one reason or another. Now, the reason makes ALL the difference here, but I want to start in a very basic place. If you have ever had Neosporin(r) put on a boo-boo, pomade smeared in your hair-do, or perfume spritzed on your wrist, you've been anointed.

But, again, the reason makes ALL the difference.

Since ancient times, anointing has been used principally for two distinct, important and, as we'll see, loaded-with-potential-religious-meaning reasons: healing and leadership. Healing is probably older and easier to explain. Leadership is where things start to get murky.

Because oils, salves, balms and resins are sticky, many of them are naturally antiseptic and most smell better than rotting flesh, anointing folks with open wounds to aid and encourage healing was a main-stay of ancient medical care. Moreover, as the action of anointing promoted physical touch and the kind of community  that contemporary psychologists suggest also promote healing it was doubly-good. Add to that the aspect of prayer and the fact that God's desire is health and healing in this broken world and you've got yourself a solid ritual. Down to this very day, Christians of all stripes still incorporate anointing and prayer into their basic understanding of pastoral care for the sick – even as we encourage people to partner with members of the medical profession.

Because oils are costly, rare and – when applied liberally – give the wearer that "healthy sheen" that we find so attractive, they have also been an important discriminator when it comes to identifying the important, wealthy and powerful in a society. So important a marker, in fact, they have even jumped the causality barrier from "the things which MARKS the powerful," to the "mark which MAKES one powerful." Thus, both religious and secular traditions stretching back to ancient times have anointed those whom they discern as being called (by God) to lead. Prophets, Priests and Kings are anointed as they are invested with and prepared for the responsibility that they are called to undertake. Anointing both confers and confirms power and authority – even God's authority – and is still widely and literally practiced in both religious and secular communities the world over.

Now here's where things get tricky. in the Judeo-Christian tradition, there is a thread of this anointing tradition that works slightly differently than that described above. Certainly by the time of King David, there is a sense that not all anointings are the same. That regardless of secular policies and procedures of power, there is an anointing that comes straight from God and is likely not clear to everyone – particularly those of corrupt power. Sometimes this subversive anointment is done in secret or kept a secret from all but those most closely associated with the divine will. Sometimes it doesn't event involve oil, but rather it is a spiritual anointing that serves as both commission and power to perform a specific task. The most extreme case of this sentiment is the notion that at a certain point in time, God will reveal an "Anointed One" – in Hebrew, Messiah – to be the ultimate power and authority in the world even if the world has trouble fully understanding whats going on.

Now, this may all sound very clandestine and cloak-and-dagger, but its not as bad as all that. The notion of Messiah is clearly a part of Christian teaching (as well as Islam and certain strand of Judaism). And the idea of 'spiritual anointing' is also relatively wide-spread. Most anyone who feels that what they do for a living is more of a vocation than simply an occupation may, if pressed, concede that they also feel that they have both been set-apart and equipped for ministry by a God who wants them to succeed. This is anointing and probably "spiritual" – accountants and teachers don't usually have oil poured on their heads.

So, I hope you can see, gentle reader, that while simple and somewhat archaic, the practice of anointing is absolutely loaded with spiritual, religious and theological meaning. As with many of the materials used for anointing, it's powerful stuff. Sometimes, "A little dab will do ya."


  1. I have been anointed, sprinkled and been the beneficiary of the laying on of hands…and consider myself Blessed… Blest be… C+2


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