“Aren’t you a little young for that?”
The elderly man was looking across the bus aisle at the keys that my missionary companion had just handed back to me.
“Young for what?” I asked. He pointed at the little silver vial hanging from my key chain.
“Nitroglycerin.” He dug out his own keys and with a smile showed me a matching vial. “I use it too.”
“Er, actually it’s olive oil,” I answered, and he looked perplexed. “For priesthood blessings.” That didn’t help. Unfortunately, the bus ride ended up being shorter than the explanation, and I think the gentleman left the bus thinking that I was going too far out of my way to cover up a premature heart condition.
It is likely that anyone with LDS friends has heard them refer occasionally to “priesthood blessings,” and might even have been offered a priesthood blessing in times of illness. What are priesthood blessings, and why are so many Mormon men walking around with olive oil in their pockets?
In the LDS Church, the priesthood is divided broadly into the Aaronic priesthood (named after the brother of Moses) and the Melchizedek priesthood (named after the Old Testament high priest and king to whom Abraham paid tithes). Of these two, the Melchizedek priesthood is considered the “greater” priesthood, and it is charged with administering and presiding in the Church.
Outside of serving in Church leadership positions, the Melchizedek priesthood (which I’ll refer from this point forward as just “the priesthood,” because “Melchizedek” is too much like a typing test) carries with it other privileges and responsibilities. One of those is administering to members of the Church through the laying on of hands, typically referred to among Mormons as “giving a blessing.” There are a number of different types of priesthood blessings, given under different circumstances and for different purposes.
The most common is administering to the sick. In the New Testament, James instructed early Christians with respect to this practice: “Is any sick among you? let him call for the leaders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.” (James 5:14). Consistent with this practice, if a person in the Church is ailing, he or she may receive a blessing for the purpose of healing.
This type of blessing consists of two parts. First, one priesthood holder anoints the person’s head with a drop of olive oil which previously would have been consecrated by a priesthood holder for the purpose of administering to the sick. Why olive oil? That could well be the subject of a post on its own, because olive oil is rich in symbolic meaning. Olive oil has been used throughout God’s dealings with man to anoint kings (such as Samuel’s anointing of the young David) and for priesthood ordinances as a symbol of the Holy Ghost. Olive oil also is a reminder of Jesus’s atoning sacrifice in the garden of Gethsemane, a name which means “olive press.” As the olive gives up its oil through the application of great weight and pressure, so also did Christ bleed from every pore as the weight of mankind’s sins and sufferings bore down on him. Thus, olive oil is a reminder that the healing of the sick is made possible only through the atonement of the Savior.
The person anointing with oil does so in the name of Jesus Christ. The other priesthood holder, again in the name of Christ, then “seals” the anointing through the laying on of hands and, as prompted by the Holy Spirit, provides words of healing, comfort or guidance.
Such blessings invite the exercise of faith, both on the part of the person receiving the blessing and those performing the ordinance. I have been fortunate to have been on both ends of such priesthood blessings on more occasions than I ever could remember. I have performed blessings for newborn babies struggling to survive, and I have laid my hands on the heads of those receiving their last priesthood blessing before leaving mortality. At times I have experienced healing that I consider miraculous, and I have seen others healed in the same manner. These have been sacred experiences for me and powerful reminders of the active power of Christ in our lives.
Priesthood blessings also are given to provide comfort or direction. So often we are troubled by personal hardships and trials, or we wrestle with significant challenges or choices. Under such circumstances, Mormons might call upon a priesthood holder for a blessing of comfort. Such blessings do not require anointing with oil, and they can be performed by one or more priesthood holders. These blessings can be powerful sources of fortitude, direction, comfort or hope. As with all priesthood blessings, they are performed in the name of Jesus Christ and are possible only through His grace and power.
Similar to these are father’s blessings. As the patriarch of the home, fathers can give blessings to their children, spouses, or grandchildren. In many families, fathers provide blessings to their children prior to major events in their lives, such as a new school year, going away to college, leaving for a mission, or prior to marriage. To me, there have been few moments more memorable and sacred than these. I have often said that only in a church organized by a loving Father in Heaven would fathers be given the opportunity and authority to bless their children. I treasure the time each August when my wife and I gather our children around us for father’s blessings before they begin their new school year. Such blessings sometimes have been moments of true revelation that have given important direction and insight to our family.
There are other types of priesthood blessings performed within the Church, but these are by far the most common. In each case, these blessings are performed in the name of Christ and serve as reminders of the power of His atonement in our lives. They are reminders of His ministry, in which He served as the master healer, offered perfect comfort, and provided the words of wisdom and guidance. They are symbolic reminders of the ultimate power of His atonement, by which we can be delivered from the consequences of our spiritual sickness and return to His presence. When called upon to give a blessing, priesthood holders are asked to do for others what Christ would do under the same circumstances. It is a solemn and sacred responsibility.
And one well worth the burden of carrying oil around in your pocket.