Candles and Oil

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)

Some years ago—back in British Columbia—I was voluntold … I mean invited … to deliver an opening sermon for a presbytery meeting. Because of a predetermined theme, I was mandated to speak about “candles and anointing oil.”

Yup. When I told a friend of mine about this, her reaction was immediate: “Candles and oil? You? I thought you couldn’t stand all that hocus-pocus!”

I am not renowned for my love of ritual. Nor do I favour ecclesiastical “props.” Truthfully, that’s not so much due to theological considerations as it is because—well, I simply don’t have an organized enough mind to keep track of things if they get too complicated.

But I’m getting better. Sometimes—even today—I will experiment with an evening contemplative service, where dim light and candle-lighting figure prominently.

I once even used a vial of “anointing oil” for a children’s story during worship. As the kids were leaving for Sunday School, I sent the oil with them, urging them to “anoint” their teachers (advice which in retrospect seems imprudent).

In all seriousness, I have gotten better at appreciating the value of what some call “sacramental actions.” Candles in the darkness—or in a quiet sanctuary—do have a kind of other-worldly beauty about them.

There is something about candles. When I was in seminary in Montréal—many years ago, now—I had the opportunity of walking a labyrinth. It was made out of coloured tape applied to the floor of a large hall, and it contained dozens of lit candles.

The candles were placed at strategic points along the path of the labyrinth, and it had been suggested that those of us who were walking the path might want to pause at each candle—pause, and look deeply into its flickering, magical light. I didn’t know what to expect, but I decided to try it.

What I saw that day—what I saw in each flame—was a face. Mostly, I saw children’s faces. Children whom I had known. Children who resided upon this earthly plane no longer.

You see, when our son was a toddler, Iris and I were part of a support group for parents of “heart kids”—children who suffered from severe congenital heart defects. The group was supposed to be for the parents, but of course we got to know one another’s kids, too.

And that was difficult, sometimes. Because many of those children did not survive for very long.

Except, of course, they yet survive in our hearts. On that June day in Montréal, I realized that I still carried those kids in my heart. And all at once it became clear as crystal, somehow, that if they lived on in my heart—and in the hearts of their parents and siblings and friends—then I could be sure that they lived on in God’s heart, also.

I’m sure that’s why I saw their faces in the candlelight. It was a powerful message. A message I might never have heard, if it weren’t for that labyrinth and those candles.

I wish I had a story like that about oil! I don’t. But I do remember the story I was telling the children—before I suggested they anoint their Sunday School teachers.

It was a story about what the word “Messiah” means; and of course—like the word “Christ”—it means “the anointed one.” I told them about how the kings of ancient Israel were anointed with oil as a sign of blessing, and of being set apart as special in the eyes of God.

Kings were anointed. So were priests. The “anointed ones” were supposed to be especially in tune with the Spirit of God. They had exalted status—and they had exalted responsibilities, as well.

If I were telling them that story over again, I think I’d point out that when we say Jesus was a “Messiah,” it means that he had a special kind of anointing. And—even if we don’t usually think of it this way—if we really believe that we are members of the “body of Christ,” then it follows that we must share, somehow, in that anointing with which Jesus was anointed. We are an anointed people.

With Jesus whom we follow, we are members of heaven’s family. As children of the living God, we have special privileges—and special responsibilities, too. Maybe that’s what’s worth remembering when we contemplate a vial of anointing oil.

And perhaps—if you’re part of a fellowship that invites you to light a candle, or to feel the gentle smoothness of oil upon your forehead … Perhaps you will contemplate these things. Do you see a face in the candlelight? Is the touch of oil like the touch of Spirit?

Candles and oil. Used at the Spirit’s prompting, they are “good and acceptable and perfect” things—and not “things of this world.” And—used in this way—perhaps they indeed have power to transform and renew our minds.

May we allow it to be so. For Jesus’ sake.


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