In some older churches there is a discrete box in the sanctuary or the baptistery called the ambry or the Olea Sancta. Traditionally the Blessed Holy Oils (Chrism, Oil of the Sick, and Oil of the Catechumens) were stored in metal containers inside this locked and opaque box. In churches where these did not exist, the oils were stored in the sacristy either in a special box, or in the safe.
But recently, the practice has set up of many parishes visibly displaying the Holy Oils in glass containers, stored within wooden boxes and behind glass doors. (See photo at right). The glass is often a fancy cut or etched glass, and mirrors sometimes exist inside to create a look of reflected light. I have even seen a few with lights.
Of itself, I see no serious harm, and I suppose it is good to store the blessed oils in a dignified way. Some of the ambry boxes are rather classy, though perhaps a bit ostentatious. I am also unaware of any specific norms on the storage of the oils in the church, though perhaps you will correct me on this.
But the use of glass is both puzzling and problematic for me. Glass presents two practical problems and one theological pondering:
- Glass can break. Now supposing one of the glass vessels falls, the usual result is that the entire contents of the blessed oil are lost, and the results are hard to clean. Broken glass mixed in with holy oils is a bad combination. The usual requirement of sacred vessels is that they be dignified, and not easily broken. For this reason, pottery and glass chalices have been excluded for years. The traditional metal vessels in which holy oils have been stored can be dropped, and though some of the contents may be spilled, usually not all is. And there is surely no glass mixed in the oil to cause difficulty in the clean up.
- Security is compromised. The glass cabinets, often used in this approach, are easily broken into. While it seems unlikely that the oils themselves would be desirable to thieves, some of the ornate cut glass and crystal containers might be a target. Further, there are some who break into churches not to steal, but to vandalize. Glass cabinets with glass vials of oil can be a target for vandals (often youth) who enjoy smashing things.
- Why do we need to “see” the oils? Here is my theological pondering. There is a long tradition of Eucharistic adoration, wherein “seeing” is an essential component. But of course, the Blessed Sacrament is the abiding presence of the Lord, and to “see” the sacred species is to see the Lord. But stored Holy Oils, though blessed, are not the Lord and they are not the Sacraments per se. The Sacrament is the sacred action of the proper celebrant making use of matter and form. So the Holy Oils are the matter of the sacrament, but they are not the Sacrament (Confirmation, Anointing of the Sick, Ordination) itself. Theologically, I wonder what we are saying in displaying the oils in glass, to be seen? And, is what we are saying correct, theologically? Further is it a practice that prudent and comprehensible in terms of Sacramental Theology.
I am asking these as real questions. I am not being merely rhetorical and I am interested in your thoughts. I am also interested in some of the practices you observe in your parishes. Further what does the practice of displaying the oils “to be seen” mean to you? How do you understand the purpose of this, if it is done in your parish?
Two final disclaimers. I do not question the use of an ambry or an olea sancta in a Church, even when it is prominently present. There does seem to be historical precedent for the storage of the Holy Oils in the main body of the Church, even in the Sanctuary, near the altar. But it is the current practice of displaying the oils in glass receptacles and boxes, with the intent that the oils themselves be seen, that I puzzle over.
The second disclaimer is that I am not proposing that this is a terrible abuse that must be stamped out. I am however, not without the concerns that I have already stated. But in the big scheme of things, I am not losing sleep over this. I am just puzzled and wondering if perhaps greater thought should be given to this practice.
I am grateful for your responses.
This video talks a bit about the Chrism Mass and, about half way through, also shows the rather wide variety of vessels that parishes present to store the Holy Oils, some metal, some glass or crystal.