Tony Robinson illuminates the link between the consecrated oils and Christ’s work in the world
Some friends whose wedding I celebrated almost thirty years ago visited me last Christmastime. Before they married, they told me the story of their first date. They were in college, and after a nice dinner together they went to get ice cream cones. Before they finished the cones, however, they both had to rush home to study for a test. She decided to put her half-eaten ice cream in the freezer so that she could keep it as a souvenir of her first date with this man she strongly felt would be her husband one day. Occasionally she would pull it out and look at it, but she couldn’t bring herself to eat it. For her, it had become like a consecrated thing, a holy reminder of a budding love that would grow into the love of husband and wife, of father and mother, and soon into the love of grandparents. To her there was sacredness in that very ordinary ice cream cone.
It was to consecrate the whole world with his love that God sent his anointed one, the Christ, to the poor, the lowly, the blind, the sick, the captives, and the sinners, so that God could teach them their true nature. They were not outcasts and worthless as the world often considered them, but were precious and sacred to him. Once they realized how beautiful they were, their lives changed radically. The poor rejoiced in the good news, the blind revelled in the light, and the oppressed, even if they were still slaves or locked away in prisons, gloried in a freedom that no one could take from them. What had been like a heap of ashes, something to be thrown away and discarded, this high priest Jesus Christ, anointed by the Holy Spirit, changed into a diadem, a royal crown. He consecrated them by pouring out his own love, his own spirit, upon them, so that what was contemptible or just plain ordinary could become radiant.
And perhaps that alone would have been a precious gift, but there was much more. He anointed others with his spirit and his love so that they, too, could be priests who, in his name, would consecrate the ordinary, the tawdry, and the rejected and make them glisten with the true nature God had bestowed upon them from the beginning, but which they had covered over with a listless spirit or a mournful attitude. We are the priestly people who are so ordinary, yet are consecrated by the fragrant oil that Christ himself pours out upon us.
When we are sick, we often feel helpless or hopeless. We mourn the health that we otherwise take for granted. We may feel oppressed by loneliness. It is to the sick then that Jesus Christ sends his holy people, through the ministry of the priests, with this soothing balm, this healing oil that is poured out in the anointing of the sick. And whether physical healing comes with the anointing or not, their feeling of being in dust and ashes can change into a feeling of being radiant because of the love and care of those around them. How ordinary it is to deal with sickness! We all know people who are sick at this very moment, but we, this priestly people of the Church, are called to turn their mourning into joy.
We can go through life thinking that we do not need anyone but ourselves, or that this life on earth is all there is. We can become captives in a world that thinks it is free but that enslaves itself by thinking there is nothing beyond one’s own reflection in the mirror. But Jesus gives us the oil of catechumens that anoints captives and sets them free, opening up to them an incredible adventure that involves crossing a treacherous but life-giving river. This is the river of living water that opens the eyes of the blind so that they can see beyond the mirror to their brothers and sisters all around them and to eternal life with God, and that calls them out of the putrid tomb of sin so that they can be untied and set free. They are anointed so that they who have grown to trust in the guidance of a priestly people that can consecrate the weak and lowly can themselves be strengthened to become a part of that priestly people.
Then there are your priests and your bishop, this group of lowly and ordinary men, with many gifts but some flaws, with many talents but some shortcomings, whose hands have been anointed with sacred chrism so that they can consecrate all they touch. They are special reminders or sacraments to all God’s priestly people that our mission is to consecrate everything in the world and to offer it as a living sacrifice of praise to God.
The sacred chrism once anointed them in baptism and confirmation as it does all God’s priestly people, but they were anointed yet again so that the precious ointment of the Holy Spirit can change the ordinary into the sacred. They do this most profoundly when they call down the Holy Spirit, like the dewfall, to change ordinary bread and common wine into the body and blood of the saviour of the world. They consecrate sinners and draw them toward being saints when they pour out Christ’s merciful love in the words of absolution. They take a diversity of ages, races, languages and ways of life, and pull them together to make one body in Christ. In the ordinariness of meetings, of social gatherings, and of reflecting on the word who is made flesh ever anew in the ordinary lives of people, they shepherd a eucharistic people, a priestly people anointed to bring good news to their families, their schools, their places of work, and their communities. We celebrate them in a special way today as we witness them renewing their priestly promises, promises that they will touch the world to make it holy.
These oils we bless and consecrate tonight may seem as lowly as an ice cream cone. But by the power of the Holy Spirit they become sacred, so that with them God’s priestly people can consecrate the world.
The Rt Revd Tony Robinson is the Bishop of Wakefield. This homily was preached at the Chrism Mass at St Hilda’s Cross Green.