The Bishop of Ebbsfleet reflects on the three oils blessed at the Chrism Mass
Holy Week is the very core of the memory and identity of Christians. In one way, as the Carthusians say, ‘The cross stands fixed while the world turns’: it is the great immovable sign of Christ’s Passover from death to life. But from another view Holy Week is the point at which all the lines of Christian memory and identity intersect, connect, and multiply. Whichever way you come at it, we are celebrating the events that make Christians who we are, real events that quite literally change our identity, and set our feet down in Christ’s shoes in Christ’s kingdom.
All three oils blessed at the Chrism Mass are signs of the Holy Spirit’s presence. Olive oil, which is a kind of distillation of the radiance of the sun, becomes on our bodies a sign of the inner transforming radiance of the Holy Spirit. This is what took place in its fullest way in Jesus. When we refer to him as Christ — the Anointed One — it is because his humanity was saturated by the power of the Holy Spirit. And because of him all human life has been opened up to the possibility of the same anointing and communion in the Spirit. The more we are united to Christ, the more we are filled with his Holy Spirit. That is the meaning of being called Christians, ‘anointed ones; people who because they belong to Christ share in his Spirit. Perhaps that brings to mind the truth of the words of St Seraphim of Sarov (whom you’ll hear a lot about if you stick with me as your Bishop): The true goal of our Christian life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God:
The Holy Spirit
This is where these oils come in. They are all used in connection with the entry of the Holy Spirit into our lives to make us Christian. Two of the oils (the ones for anointing the sick and for anointing people preparing for baptism) are far closer in meaning than you might first think. They are both concerned with forgiveness and healing, which in the Gospels are deeply interconnected.
When we look in the Gospels it becomes clear that Jesus’ healing miracles bring to an end the bodily sickness of an individual so that that person’s alienation from the community, from God’s people, can also be ended. Jesus’ main purpose in healing a person was to restore them to the community, to end their estrangement and loneliness, and to give back their proper dignity in the fellowship of the community. That is why so many of the healing stories in the Gospels involve a person being declared ‘clean’ by the priests of the community. Jesus touch not only healed sickness, it healed the wound of alienation too, and gave people new access to sharing in the identity of the chosen people. Perhaps that helps us to see the oil of catechumens in a rather similar light. It too is associated with the reconciliation of
individuals, with being forgiven and healed of the sickness and loneliness of sin, and drawn into the community of Jesus Christ.
And this is not only about new Christians. The same theme of forgiveness and return also emerges in another way. Holy Thursday was not only the day on which the oils were normally blessed, but was also the day on which baptized individuals who had been alienated from the Church for some reason, and had demonstrated their penitence throughout Lent, were publicly reconciled with the Church, ready to share fully in the celebrations of Easter.
So: an end of sickness, an end of sin, an end of alienation; an embrace of the Lord, a renewed desire to be Christ’s disciple, a reconciliation with the communion of saints. All these themes are connected with these two oils. And both find their goal in that special oil, the Chrism, which is the sign above all of the Holy Spirit enabling human beings to live the life of Jesus: a life in this world but with its source in communion with God.
Need for healing
We have to recognize our own poverty and infidelity, and our need of all those things that the holy oils signify. Let us confess our sense of loneliness and fear of greater isolation from the Church catholic, and seek the consolation of the Holy Spirit. Let us affirm our desire to live our life in as full as possible a relation to catholic fellowship. Let us put aside a temptation to nurse our wounds, and let us admit our need of Christ’s touch, of the Spirit’s healing, of the restoration to joy. It is a touch and a healing that we shall need even more in the coming months if our Church takes further decisions which we believe to be in contradiction to the express will of God for his Church and subversive of its true nature.
Many of our brothers and sisters in the Coil, the Anglican Communion, or wider still, do not understand or necessarily accept that our commitment to the received sacramental order of the Church is a matter of obedience to the Lord’s authority and to the consensus of the Church’s tradition. But many do: it commands their respect; and they desire our continued presence precisely in the Church where the Lord has put us and continues to feed us. Together with them — and despite the painful sacramental contradictions — we shall need to promote ways of living in the closest, fullest, highest degree of connection and relationship, because we are all beggars in need of the gifts of the Spirit that can only be experienced in unity.