The Bishop of Chichester’s Chrism Mass homily on the consecrated oils as cosmetics of holiness
‘Do you use a moisturiser?’ That was a question put to me and a group of clergy, male and female, not so long ago. And since we were all working in the cosmopolitan, metrosexual context of London, the answer was, ‘Yes, of course we do; what planet are you on? What planet do you think we’re on?’
I was reminded of this three weeks ago when Dr Paula Gooder was in this pulpit giving a Chichester Theological Society lecture entitled ‘The Body Beautiful’. She began with a detailed and scholarly survey of magazines for women and for men, noting how they showed a remarkable similarity in subject matter, including cosmetics.
A living sacrifice
Dr Gooder went on to explore ‘body, soul, spirit and mind’ in the theology of St Paul and how he encourages us to think more creatively about the scope of being embodied persons who live with the capacity to know God. The experience of that knowledge led Paul to make his well-known appeal to the Christians living in Rome: ‘Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship’ (Romans 12.1).
Today, I entrust to you [priests], with love and with confidence in your fidelity, the oils of gladness. They are instruments for the expansion and sanctification of the pilgrim people of God of which you are a part and whom you serve. They are the cosmetics of holiness, whereby in the sacred drama and duty of worship, bodies become a living sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.
Beauty is moral
The use of cosmetics by women and men is now commonplace, and many of us might even be users of the famous brands. But we should also resist being taken in by the pernicious aspects of the contemporary cult of cosmetic beauty, which is derived from a synthetic and superficial definition of what it means to be beautiful.
By contrast, these oils are entrusted to you as the cosmetics of holiness, for the promotion of a different kind of beauty. They remind us that beauty is moral; it is about what you do and how you relate to each other, to the material world, and to God, its creator. Moral beauty requires the skill of loving yourself unflinchingly in the presence of the glory of God and the judgement of truth. This is a skill that we have not generally been very good at promoting within the Christian tradition.
‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’ St Paul reminds the Christians in Rome, echoing words from the prophet Isaiah. This is a statement about the moral character of the apostolic life, being sent out (that, simply, is what ‘apostolic’ means) to share the good news of Jesus Christ, something that is, in itself, a beautiful thing to do.
Healing and teaching
Each of the oils directs our attention to a different aspect of the apostolic mandate we all receive from Jesus Christ at our baptism. The oil of the sick directs us to the experience of healing. Its use promotes the moral virtue of honesty in acknowledging our personal and collective hurt, deceit, and the capacity to inflict damage, even on those we love. The fruit of this honesty is repentance: its reward is the boundless mercy of God, whose response is always the expression of love.
The oil of baptism directs us to the apostolic task of teaching and learning, to the moral virtue of wisdom and the capacity to receive a wisdom not of our own making, but of God. Although this oil is used sparingly and symbolically in a liturgical context, it nonetheless represents any form of catechesis, such as our home groups, Messy Church and Godly Play, Alpha, Emmaus, Pilgrim!, Christianity Explored, and so on. Humility is the fruit of this virtue and green is its symbolic colour – the sign of being fertile and supple in Christian youthfulness which is an attitude determined not by age but by the bending of our will to the calling of Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit at work in the Church.
Faith in God
Thirdly, the oil of Chrism directs us to the virtue of faith in God, the maker of heaven and earth. This theological virtue had a resolutely material quality, asserting that time and space are of God’s making and in them God’s purposes of goodness and perfection will be fulfilled. The oil of Chrism points to time in its referencing of the Old Covenant fulfilled in the New Covenant sealed and ratified with the blood of Jesus. This oil points to the material things of creation which are capable of being consecrated so that ‘the splendour of holiness’ shines out ‘from every place and thing signed with this oil’. This oil promotes the moral virtue of justice which bears fruit in the relentless demand that we care for nature, the earth, the animal kingdom and differentiated nations of the human race whose existence by God our creator demands attention to our inter-dependence and most particularly to the needs of the poor and the weak.
These are virtues to be promoted, nurtured and renewed by use of the oils now entrusted to you as the cosmetics of holiness, instruments for the promotion of beauty as a moral force in our apostolic life. Learn well the meaning of these oils and use them with skill, with love and with reverence for ‘Christ’s beloved bride, his own flock, bought by the shedding of his blood on the cross’ and entrusted to your charge.
By the time this issue of New Directions falls through letterboxes, the polls will have closed and the General Election will be over. At the time of writing, however, it is very far from clear whether the United Kingdom will have a new government by the same time. There is every possibility that you will be reading this as a Conservative – Lib Dem –UKIP – DUP coalition is being negotiated; or a Labour – SNP – PC – SDLP – Green ‘confidence and supply’ agreement is being hastily put in place. Or any other combination, come to that, of the ‘fresh expression’ of politics in this country which we are now experiencing, and which is frankly bewildering to most people whose political memories reach back before 2010.
Whatever one’s party political allegiance, there seems (again, necessarily, at the time of writing) to be an emerging consensus about one thing: that this election campaign is being fought around questions which are frankly at the margins of what really matters in the world today. Respectable scientists criticize even the Green party for not being Green enough – for focusing on NHS funding and other domestic issues to the exclusion of any serious engagement with the environment, with sustainability, with climate change. Almost daily, the press reports another atrocity perpetrated against Christians somewhere in North Africa or the Middle East. And the front pages and top stories on the television news are dominated not by the day’s political campaigning, but by horrifying accounts of death by drowning on a massive scale as migrants seek a new life on the shores of southern Europe. How extraordinary to have it reliably explained that the Mediterranean Sea is the most deadly waterway in the world for such migrants.
Our Lord scolded the scribes and the Pharisees for their failure to discern the signs of the times. There are no easy solutions, and church-goers are in no position to throw stones: the Church of England after all could justly deserve a higher degree in myopia. But it can surely be predicted with confidence that when historians come to reflect on the second decade of the twenty-first century, they will ask: what did they do about the extermination of the world’s most ancient Christian communities? And, what did they do in Europe to assist the migrant and the refugee – long before they recall that they put a new tax on high-value properties, or conjured a new right-to-buy scheme out of the air.
May and June are the great festival months in the liturgical year, with the feast days and solemnities falling thick and fast, Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, Corpus Christi, the Sacred Heart, St Peter and St Paul. There are many great days to enjoy, associated with the life of particular devotional societies (the SOM and CBS festivals, for example), or with particular places of pilgrimage. Pride of place (with no discourtesy intended to other celebrations) goes to the National Pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, which takes place this year on 25 May, Monday in Whitsun Week, to use Prayer Book style. The 2015 National Pilgrimage will strike a valedictory note, as it will be the last to be organized on the watch of the present Administrator, Bishop Lindsay Urwin. Bishop Lindsay has kindly agreed to write something of a reflection on his time at England’s Nazareth in next month’s edition of New Directions, but for now this is our opportunity to thank him for all that he has done to ensure that Walsingham has continued to prosper as a place of prayer, welcome and healing: and of course, a place where devotion to Our Blessed Lady, whose month we celebrate, is fostered and contemplation of the mystery of the Incarnation daily renewed. Walsingham is such an important place for countless souls up and down the land: the faithful, the inquisitive, those at present far from faith. It is a perhaps uniquely important place to so many readers of New Directions: a place where, as the Bishop of Norwich is so fond of pointing out, it is just normal and natural to be an Anglican Christian who identifies with the faith and order of the universal Church. As we thank God for Bishop Lindsay’s ministry at Walsingham, so we ask for the prayers of all our readers for those engaged in the search for his successor as Administrator, for Guardians, staff and all pilgrims and visitors, and for God’s blessing on the future life and witness of the Shrine. Our Lady of Walsingham, pray for us.