Tony Robinson considers the symbolism of the Chrism Mass
There is an ancient Latin saying that has a place of great significance in our catholic tradition: lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi. Roughly translated into English it means something like this: as we pray, so we believe, and as we believe, so we are called to live. All three elements of the saying are interconnected, but the order in which they occur is also very important. The Christian community is above all else called to be a community of prayer, a community in other words which knows and embraces the fundamental truth that our faith, before it is about anything else, is about our relationship with God and, as a consequence of this, our relationship with our brothers and sisters in the faith. We are a people who know that, as the words of St Paul in one of his letters remind us, it is in God that ‘we live, and move and have our very being.’ I mention this at the beginning of my homily tonight because we are celebrating one of the most important liturgical celebrations of our lives as catholic Christians: the coming together of the bishop with his priests and his deacons, with the people of God we celebrate who we are, as brothers and sisters, united in the community of faith which is the living sign of the ongoing and active presence of Jesus Christ in the world. Our liturgy tonight, in a particularly powerful way, is the unveiling of the mystery of the Church as it has been given to us by the Lord and perpetuated throughout history, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, in the faithful handing on of our tradition.
When I was training for my own ordination 37 years ago, I remember being taught that if, by some strange set of circumstances, every theology book in the world were destroyed, we would still have complete access to our faith in and through our faithful celebration of the church’s liturgy. What we believe, what we have received from the Lord, is celebrated first in our liturgy and then comes to expression in our theology. From this we learn what the Lord is asking of us, we learn about how we are meant to live our lives. At the heart of our liturgy of course is our celebration of the Lord’s passion, death and resurrection. Tonight, once again, we will be invited into the mystery of the Last Supper, where the Lord gave his disciples the bread and wine which were his body and blood, broken and poured out for them and for us, and we will be challenged once again by his words: ‘Do this in remembrance of me.’ We are called to celebrate the Eucharist so that we can become, in our communion with Our Lord, the presence of the Eucharist in the lives of others. In memory of Jesus and in union with him we too are called to hand over our lives for the life of the world.
In the midst of our celebration of the Lord’s passion, death and resurrection tonight are two other elements which are unique to tonight’s celebration. One is the blessing of the holy oils and the other is the renewal of their ordination promises by our priests and deacons. The oils of course are used exclusively in the celebration of the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, anointing of the sick and priestly and episcopal ordination. Each of these sacraments points in its own way to the mystery of the Eucharist, the great sacrament of communion. In baptism we are plunged into the great mystery of Christ. The pouring of the water symbolises our union with Christ as he submits himself to death, is plunged into the darkness, and then rises to new life.
The oil of catechumens is used in baptism to remind us of the power and strength which comes to us from the grace of God, and the Chrism, which we consecrate tonight, symbolises our profound union with Christ whose death and rising to new life we now share. The oil of the sick becomes a sign of the strength we receive in times of physical illness and as we prepare for the final moment of our journey into full communion with the Lord through death and our rising to new life. But before we come to this final journey of course we have our lives to lead. The holy oil of Chrism, first used at our baptism, is then used again at our confirmation to symbolise the gift of the Holy Spirit which comes to us in a new way to strengthen us for the challenge of living out our Christian lives to the full. As he offered himself on the cross in a sacrificial act of total self-giving to his father for our sake so we, who are now one with him, are also called to make our lives a sacrificial gift for others.
The other unique element in our liturgy tonight is the renewing of the solemn promises by our priests, who of course were anointed at their ordination with the oil of Chrism. As the ordained we live among our people, conscious that the Lord has placed us at the heart of our communities not because we are better, or holier, or more worthy than our brothers and sisters, but simply because the Lord has chosen us to be the living signs that he has not deserted his people, that he continues to lead us and to feed us, to forgive us and to encourage us, to serve us and to strengthen us.
It is only through the presence of the Lord Jesus in the midst of his church that any baptised Christian can hope to be faithful. It is our role as clergy to bring alive, in a particular and sacramentally powerful way, the empowering presence of the Lord. And this is why, in the official liturgy of the church as we celebrate it this evening, the renewal of their commitment is accompanied by an invitation to the whole community of faith, represented by all who have gathered here in the church this evening, to pray for our priests and myself, that we will be faithful to our vocation.
As we pray tonight, as we celebrate who we are as a church, as we rejoice in the gift of the Eucharist, as we recommit ourselves to being eucharistic people, as we receive with gratitude the sacramental gifts of life, strength, commitment and hope, and as we pray for our clergy, may we believe what we celebrate in this Mass and live it out in our daily lives with courage, enthusiasm and joy.
Bishop Tony Robinson is the Bishop of Wakefield, and Chairman of Forward in Faith. This Chrism Mass sermon was preached at St Peter’s, Horbury.