The ritual practice of anointing makes the person that is anointed an “Anointed One,” which is what the word Christ literally means, and by derivation is what being a Christian means. Cyril of Jerusalem in the fourth century noted of those who had been baptized and anointed, “You have been made Christs, by receiving the anti-type [symbol] of the Holy Spirit [the oil]” (Catecheses 21.1). Receiving the chrism they are ritualistically made Christs, being clothed in that Name and Identity, taking it upon themselves in actual fact as their own Eternal Identity, their True Name/Self.
But merely having oil placed onto one’s body does not make one a Christ, but is an outward symbolic rite pointing towards an actual inner realization and transformation of consciousness and being that is synonymous with dying to the “natural man” or ego-self, and being reborn, born again of Spirit, raised up, resurrected to Eternal Life, re-Incarnated, transfigured, begotten as a Beloved Son/Daughter of God, a Messiah, one who is in and of the body of Christ, a knowing of Oneness/Nonduality in God. It is this mystical realization and transformation that Jesus himself attained, exemplified, and guided others towards.
Christians today often focus on the rites, but much less, if at all, on the inner realization and transformation that the rites signify, typify, and perhaps originally were designed to actually provoke in the nature and consciousness of the person. The rite is not the reality, and the rites become empty and meaningless when the reality to which they point is not fulfilled in the individual. The rites can become a form of idolatry if they are worshiped without awareness of the radical inner realizations that they point to. As the esteemed Mormon scholar Hugh Nibley once wrote, “The ordinances are mere forms. They do not exalt us; they merely prepare us to be ready in case we ever become eligible.” And yet, many Mormons seem to think that their ordinances are what exalts them. Often Christians in general think likewise about their rites (e.g. baptism is essential for salvation). It’s not the ritual that exalts/saves, but the reality that the ritual symbolizes that exalts/saves/redeems/enlightens.
As the Apostle Paul noted, these outward acts are a shadow of things to come, a type, but the reality is Christ, having the mind/consciousness of Christ, putting on Christ as a garment (Colossians 2:17; Hebrews 10:1; 1 Cor. 2:16; Phillipians 2:5; Galatians 3:27; Romans 13:14). It is an inner transformation of self, nature, consciousness, being, a realization or recognition of one’s true nature as Divine and Sacred.
In the ancient world, originally the anointing ceremony may have had a much more direct connection to such inner realizations and shifts in consciousness. Being anointed with the holy anointing oil seemed to be directly effective in producing deep spiritual and mystical revelations, even causing such realizations in one’s consciousness. Perhaps the oil had psychoactive properties. Later the anointing seems to have become detached from such direct realizations, and became only symbolic of them. Here are some interesting quotations from Margaret Barker, a Methodist biblical scholar, in her book Temple Themes in Christian Worship, which seem to point to this direct efficacy and potency of the ancient holy anointing oil that seems to be absent today:
- “The significance of anointing derives from the original meaning of the oil: it had been the symbol of theosis, of becoming divine.” (Page 126)
- “Oil was the sacrament of Wisdom, as can be seen from the different ways that Josiah’s purge of the temple was described: the oil had been hidden, and Wisdom had been rejected, which meant the priests lost their spiritual vision (1 Enoch 93.8). The oil gave vision.” (Page 126)
- “The high priest was anointed with oil, and thus his mind was ‘illuminated with a brilliant light.'” (Page 127)
- “These were spiritual gifts that altered one’s way of knowing, and so the effect of anointing was Wisdom… The anointed one gave forth the fragrance of the oil, because Wisdom ‘was’ in the oil.” (Page 127)
- “‘In the present life, Aaron the first high priest was anointed with a composition of chrism which was made after the pattern of the spiritual ointment… If then this temporal grace, compounded by men, had such efficacy, consider how potent was that ointment extracted by God from a branch of the tree of life’ (Clementine Recognitions).” (Page 128)
- “[In the Acts of Thomas,] Thomas’s Christians were anointed before baptism, and the power of the Most High invoked with the oil was not simply ‘the Holy Spirit’. She was ‘the compassionate mother, the revealer of the hidden mysteries’… ‘she that knows the mysteries of the chosen one’… ‘the revealer of hidden treasures.'” (Page 131)
- “The mystery of the oil was given its fullest exposition by Dionysius: ‘The ray of the most holy sacred things enlightens the men of God, purely and directly; it spreads its sweet fragrance into their mental reception’; ‘In being initiated in that sacred sacrament of the divine birth, the perfecting anointing of the ointment gives us a visitation of the divine Spirit.'” (Page 133)
I like to also keep in mind that there are analogues to the same reality of “becoming Christ” in most other religions, such as Buddha-nature in Buddhism (or Buddhahood, bodhicitta), or Atman in Hinduism, so we should be careful in becoming too dogmatically attached to any particular term, ritual, or narrative that refers to this transcendent nature, thinking ours is best, and that others must view and practice it exactly the same as we do or they will be lost. Unfortunately, this is what religions tend towards over time. But these are universal realities found in our most fundamental human nature that each culture has formed their own symbolisms and metaphors around. If one is aware of these other symbolisms, one realizes their application when the Insight is attained. All truth is fulfilled in One Great Whole, and one sees clearly the absolute Unity even in the diversity. Conversion to a particular human point of view is not what enlightened persons seek in others, but rather they seek to guide them towards the direct realization/revelation/insight of the ineffable Truth for themselves. Nothing else can replace this direct Realization and Knowing.