Most of us are so familiar with the title “Christ” (Christos in Greek) that we tend to consider it part of Jesus’ personal name. But what exactly does it mean? Like “Messiah,” “Christ” means the “anointed one.” The phrase “anointed one” refers to someone who has been set apart for a special mission.
Many ancient peoples believed that oil rubbed onto the body could impart strength, health, and beauty. Since oil was a staple of life in biblical times, used for lighting, cooking, medicine, cosmetic purposes, hygiene, and hospitality, it served as a symbol of both wealth and joy. An abundance of oil was evidence of God’s pleasure. Scarcity symbolized his displeasure.
Oil was also used for sacred purposes, such as consecrating altars and vessels for worship, indicating that they had been set apart for the Lord’s purposes. People could also be anointed and set apart. Though some of Israel’s high priests were anointed when they took office, Israel’s kings, especially those descended from David, were anointed rather than crowned. According to rabbinic tradition, oil (olive oil mixed with spices like cinnamon, calamus, and myrrh) was poured on their heads in a circle to form a crown. This anointing signified the king’s right to rule. It meant that God had blessed him with authority, strength, and honor.
The New Testament identifies Jesus as Christ, the “Anointed One,” no less than 530 times. Jesus, however, was not anointed with oil but with the Holy Spirit at his baptism in the Jordan River. The early Christians understood that Jesus was the Christ—the Messiah, or in Hebrew Mashiach—in a unique sense. Like no king before him, he was called to heal the rift between God and his people. In order to avoid being forced into playing a political role, Jesus avoided the title of Christ or Messiah throughout most of his life. Finally, shortly before his death, he answered the high priest’s question: “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?” with the startling confession: “I am.”
In time, oil became a symbol for the Holy Spirit, who imparts divine favor, power, and protection. The English word “christen” (“to anoint”) comes from the Greek verb chrio (“to anoint”).
Praying to Our Messiah
One of the most depressing stories ever written is Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Perhaps you know of this critically acclaimed play. Some commentators believe that the character of “Godot,” represents God. In any case, as one of the lines of the play confirms, this is a story in which “Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful.”<sup?1 The two main characters, Vladimir and Estragon, wait endlessly for Godot, who, despite promises to the contrary, never arrives.
I wonder if the Jewish people were ever tempted to despair of the arrival of their long-promised Messiah. Generation after generation had carried the hope forward, little realizing that once the Messiah did arrive, many people would not even recognize him. Jesus simply wasn’t the kind of Messiah they were expecting. Instead of overthrowing their Roman oppressors through a display of incredible might, he was nailed to a cross in a spectacle of unimaginable weakness. Or so it must have seemed.
They didn’t understand that Jesus was solving bigger problems than the Roman Empire nor did they comprehend the methods he was using to free them from their bondage to sin and death.
So many times we, too, are waiting for God, begging him to show up in our lives. What happens when the help we are asking for doesn’t come in the package we expect? What if our Messiah is solving bigger problems than the ones we want him to address?
Unlike the unhappy characters in Waiting for Godot, we are waiting for a God who does keep his promises. Over and over, Christ our Messiah comes to us, helping us, challenging and changing us, giving us deeper insight into his life-giving ways.
- Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot (New York: Grove Press, 1954), 43.