A question I have often pondered in relation to blessings for the sick and afflicted is the use of olive oil as part of the blessing. Is there any difference in the power of a blessing when we use olive oil versus when we do not have olive oil for the blessing? If the blessing is the same whether you use olive oil or not then why are we encouraged to use olive oil when performing blessings when possible?
The answer, at least the one I have come to, lies in the role of symbolism in the LDS church. Symbolism plays a significant role in much of our LDS life. We are told that all things bear record of Christ, "both things which are temporal, and things which are spiritual; things which are in the heavens above, and things which are on the earth, and things which are in the earth, and things which are under the earth, both above and beneath: all things bear record of me" (Moses 6:63).
We embrace symbolism for rituals such as baptism (symbolic of death, burial, and rebirth), the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper (with its connection to the blood and body of Christ), and marriage (which signifies both human and divine unity).
Why is oil used in administering to the sick?
The answer comes from D. Kelly Ogden, assistant professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University, in the October 1991 ensign issue. The short answer is if you have pure olive oil which you should use it in anointing the sick and sealing the anointing. In times of emergency, when no oil is available, then they should administer by the laying on of hands in the power of the priesthood and in the prayer of faith.
Here is an excerpt from the answer D. Kelly Ogden provided:
We use olive oil because the Lord has commanded us to do so. The scriptures give us some clues as to why the Lord has so directed us…
Throughout the ages, symbols—physical objects, substances, and actions—have been used to represent sacred powers and practices. When we are baptized, water is the physical property, or symbol, involved in the ordinance. The water does not cleanse us from sin; it is the faith and repentance that precede our baptism that allow God to grant a remission of our sins.
When we partake of the sacrament, bread and water symbolize the body and blood of the Savior. There is no redeeming value in the bread and water—only in what they represent, which is of infinite worth to us.
So it is with administration to the sick. We apply hands and oil, the physical touch and the tangible substance, but the hands and the oil do not heal. It is faith in Jesus Christ and the power of the priesthood that heals…
Is a priesthood administration valid without the use of olive oil? Again, it is not the oil that heals a person, but the prayer of faith and the use of priesthood power. In times of emergency, when no oil is available, it is altogether fitting and proper for priesthood holders to administer to a sick or injured person with no anointing. On this subject, Elder Joseph Fielding Smith wrote:
“There have been cases, sad to relate, where elders of the Church, through lack of understanding, have refused to administer to the sick under conditions where oil could not be had. It is the privilege and duty of the elders to bless the sick by the laying on of hands. If they have pure olive oil which has been consecrated for this purpose, one of them should use it in anointing the sick, and then they should by the laying on of hands seal the anointing. If no oil is to be had, then they should administer by the laying on of hands in the power of the priesthood and in the prayer of faith, that the blessing sought may come through the power of the Spirit of the Lord. This is in accordance with the divine plan inaugurated in the beginning.” (Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie, 3 vols., Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954–56, 3:183.)
As with many rituals and ordinances in the church, the Lord has instructed us on how we are to perform rituals and ordinances. In times of emergency or other special circumstances, the Lord will accept our best efforts to follow the rituals and ordinances. Let us each strive to be prepared and worthy to perform priesthood blessings for whenever the circumstance may arise.