Question: Why do some Lutherans celebrate the Chrism Mass?
Answer: I don’t know why some do. I can only offer a guess. But first let me explain to general readers what the Chrism Mass is and then offer my opinion on its suitability for Lutherans.
It is a Mass that was celebrated in the ancient Roman Church that has continued in the Roman Catholic tradition. It includes the blessing of oils to be used on the catechumens before their Baptism (Oleum Catechumenorum) and on the newly-baptized after their Baptism (Sanctum Chrisma). (There were two anointings in the Roman order for Baptism.) To this was added the oil for the anointing of the sick (Oleum Infirmorum).
This Mass was celebrated on Maundy Thursday so that the oils would be ready for use in the rites of Christian initiation at the Easter Vigil. In the old sacramentaries (Gelasian, Gregorian) Maundy Thursday was one of only two days in the church year in the Roman Rite with three prescribed Masses—the other two masses on Holy Thursday being the Reconciliation of Penitents and the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper. (The other day in the calendar with three masses is Christmas Day.) The oils were blessed by the bishop of the diocese because he is the principal minister of Christian initiation.
Since the bishop could not preside at all baptisms at Easter, parish presbyters (priests) attended the Mass and received the oils which they took back to their local parishes for use in Baptisms there. The bishop would also use chrism in pontifical rites (rites which only the bishops can perform) such as confirmation, ordination, and the dedication of churches and altars.
In post-Vatican II practice the Chrism Mass, with priests of the diocese in attendance, became a time for priests to renew their ordination vows. Roman Catholic theology holds that the priesthood was instituted at the Lord’s Supper at which the Lord commanded his apostles to “do this.” Lutherans might quibble over this institution of the priesthood, but the sense that ordained ministers celebrate/preside over the Lord’s Supper in persona Christi (in the role of Christ) has been a part of our tradition. Also after the Second Vatican Council the priests attending the Chrism Mass concelebrated with their bishop. But only the bishop blesses the oils.
In recent years Lutherans and Anglicans/Episcopalians have picked up the practice. Bishops bless the oils to be used in Baptism and the ministry to the sick. Pastors/priests of the diocese attend the Liturgy, renew their ordination vows, and take bottles of the oils back to their congregations/parishes for use there in Holy Baptism and ministry to the sick. This liturgy is usually offered early in Holy Week rather than on Maundy Thursday.
I can think of no reason for Lutherans not to embrace this practice. Lutherans have no theological objection to blessing material objects used in worship and the sacraments, such as oil and water, bread and wine, or other objects as well, to which a divine command and promise can be applied, even if indirectly. Note that the Lutheran Book of Worship (1978) restored the anointing of the newly baptized and Occasional Services (1982) restored the anointing of the sick. So the oil is needed.
There is also no reason why the ministerium of the Church should not gather with its local bishop/president/dean/senior to renew the ministry which they exercise collegially, especially in advance of the most solemn time in the year for Christians at which they will proclaim and celebrate the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection and initiate new Christians into that mystery.
The annual Chrism Mass is a practice that many Lutheran jurisdictions (synods, districts, conferences) have picked up in recent years. My Metropolitan Chicago Synod of the ELCA has offered it for about 30 years. The photos within and following this article are from the 2016 chrism mass at Redeemer Lutheran Church in The Bronx, NY, a congregation of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod. The photo above the article is of a Roman Catholic bishop blessing the oils.
Pastor Frank Senn, STS