Jonathan Baker offers an insight into the working of the Spirit in the Church
‘The Spirit of the Lord has been given to me, for he has anointed me.’
When St Augustine wrote to St Ambrose asking him what he should study to assist him with his preparation for baptism, Ambrose told him to read the Book of Isaiah. Augustine, apparently, found the text too difficult and put it aside, but Ambrose was right: right because, in this text, or series of texts, which has often been called ‘The Fifth Gospel,’ the whole pattern and hope of our salvation is revealed in prophecy, which in turn is fulfilled in Christ.
Verses from Isaiah occupy centre stage in this Chrism Mass liturgy. Isaiah 61, from which our first reading comes, is not the only place in that book in which the outpouring of the Spirit is revealed, or foretold: we might think of Isaiah 11, and the passage more often associated with Advent—‘A shoot springs from the stock of Jesse… on him the Spirit of the Lord rests.’ Here, in chapter 61, the Spirit anoints a kingly or prophetic figure whose task will be to rebuild, to renew and to restore all that had been abandoned and laid waste. Whether we identify the ‘me’ of Isaiah 61 verse 1 with a king or a prophet, we know that it is Christ himself who speaks in and through the words of the scripture, and that they are fulfilled in him. As Origen tells us, it is ‘not by chance,’ but rather by ‘the providence of God’ that Jesus opens the scroll and ‘finds a chapter containing a prophecy of himself.’ And the Fathers, in their commentaries on St Luke chapter 4, spare nothing in their exposition of what is going on in this gripping episode, when surely we could have heard a pin drop in that Nazarene synagogue. Ambrose tells us that Jesus is anointed all over with spiritual oil, and heavenly virtue, ‘that he might enrich the poverty of man’s condition with the everlasting treasure of his resurrection.’ John Chrysostom speaks of Christ leading humanity out of the ‘prison of the soul,’ where we would otherwise be held captive by sin. Origen—commenting, like Chrysostom, on the image of freedom from captivity—writes, ‘For what had been so shattered and dashed about as man, who was set at liberty by Jesus and healed?’
So Isaiah 61 and Luke 4 give us the context for the whole of this Mass of the oils, and that context is nothing less than Christ’s work of freeing, healing, liberating us and all creation from bondage—touching the ‘poverty of our condition’ with the treasure of the resurrection life. Christ alone is the world’s anointed saviour, but the Fathers are also keen to emphasize that the outpouring of the Spirit which comes upon him at his baptism does not make him saviour, for he is that from before the foundation of the world. Rather, it is a temporal sign revealing an eternal truth. Likewise, commenting on Luke 4, St Cyril of Alexandria notes that the anointing and sending which Jesus speaks of as being fulfilled in himself are to do with Christ’s temporal mission, with the mission of the incarnate word, which has, at its heart, the preaching of good news to the poor.
It is at the heart of our faith to believe that out of his infinite love and mercy, by an act of (as it were) extraordinary divine condescension, Christ calls us to share in his mission, to share in the work of bringing freedom and healing to all that is imprisoned and diseased—the work which is, supernaturally, his alone. One of the blessings which follows, in Isaiah’s prophecy, from the mission of the one who says, ‘the Spirit of the Lord is upon me,’ is the appearance of a renewed priesthood, a priesthood which is not confined to the ranks of the hereditary priesthood of old. In fulfilment of that text, Christ, who is the high priest of the New Covenant, invites others to share in a particular way in his priesthood, conferring on them—on you, fathers—a share in that same Spirit with which he was anointed at his baptism, conforming them—conforming you, fathers—‘more closely to him,’ as the rite of the renewal of your commitment to priestly service will remind us in a few moments’ time. The gift of the Spirit, conferred by prayer and the laying on of hands at priestly ordination, is—as the rite further teaches us—for a twofold purpose: grace and power to celebrate the ‘mysteries of God,’ paramount among them the Holy Eucharist; and authority to teach. In the liturgy of ordination, the presentation of the chalice and paten, and the giving of the Bible, well symbolise these core priestly tasks and callings.
The vision cast in Isaiah 61—and which is to be found in numerous other texts in the Hebrew scriptures besides—is not limited, however, to the anointing by the Spirit of one royal or prophetic individual (who is Christ), nor even to that sharing of the Spirit’s gifts among a renewed priesthood which is set aside for cultic presidency and expounding the law. There is a clear hint that the Spirit is in fact to be given to all the people of God who are, in fulfilment of the promise made to Abraham, to be a priestly people, a priestly nation, light and salt for all the peoples and nations of the earth. The path from God’s promises as revealed in the Old Covenant to their fulfilment in the New is not difficult to trace. While we tend to think of this Chrism Mass as a gathering and a rite which is focussed on the clergy (and there is some truth in that), truly, nonetheless, we rejoice in the presence of so many laity who are here this morning. For you, the people of God, are a priestly people, you share in Christ’s priesthood by your baptism and confirmation, and the members of the ministerial priesthood ranked in front of you are there to serve you, to build you up and enable you to be who you are, the people whom God has called you to be. The holy oils blessed and consecrated at this Mass perfectly symbolise this relationship between the priesthood of the baptised and the priesthood of the ordained. They will be entrusted by me, your bishop, to them, your presbyters and priests, but they will be used in ministry to the whole people of God: the oil of catechumens to prepare new Christians for baptism; the oil of chrism to strengthen them and form them as mature disciples in confirmation; the oil of the sick to bring about in them that wholeness and healing, spiritual as much as physical, whose fruits are inner strength and peace.
This whole rite of the Chrism Mass has, therefore, much to teach us about the distribution of gifts, the Spirit’s gifts, within the body of Christ; a distribution of gifts which, as we have seen, lies deeply within the DNA of the people of Israel of old. One of the depressing trends in the life of the Church in the modern era (I was going to say in the life of the Church of England, but I think it is not exclusively our problem) has been a ‘flattening out’ of that sense of the diverse distribution of gifts, and a failure of confidence in the distinctive nature of the gifts the Spirit gives. Thus, we have tended on the one hand to ‘clericalize’ the laity and bureaucratize baptismal vocation which is the primary identity in Christ of the whole people of God, and we have tended on the other to obscure the calling to ordained ministry, to the ministerial priesthood, by overlaying that twofold gifting to be a steward of the mysteries and a teacher of the faith with a plethora of tiresome and enervating functions.
Both of those tendencies can lead to experiencing the church as a place of frustration, petty conflict and anxiety, a million miles from the vision of liberty and health proclaimed by Isaiah and claimed by Jesus himself. In the See of Fulham, we are, I think, blessedly free from the worst excesses of that flat-earth theology, and we have, I think, been doing really good work in cultivating confidence in the baptismal vocation and in what is means to be a lay Christian who is truly a well-formed disciple and a witness, and ambassador, for the faith. This began with last autumn’s lay congress, and has continued with the fourfold Lent course reflecting on baptism, Bible, Eucharist and prayer. (We have also been reminded, as if we needed reminding, how rich are the gifts God has given to the priests who serve across the Fulham parishes; may I repeat my thanks to all those who have contributed to the Lent course? Thank you.)
Let me end by briefly referencing a verse which is actually omitted from our reading from Isaiah 61, I think perhaps because the scholars, while all agreeing on how obscure the Hebrew text of this verse is, cannot agree on how to translate it—translations can vary widely. It is verse 7 which, in one version at least, speaks of ‘eternal gladness’ being upon the heads of the priests of the Lord, picking up the reference in verse 3 to the one who has the Spirit of the Lord giving the ‘oil of gladness’ to those who mourn. In this Chrism Mass rite, the ‘oil of gladness,’ which David prophesied would anoint Christ—the ‘anointed one’—is associated with the Chrism oil itself, but perhaps we could use the phrase of all the holy oils. We, the people of God, have all been anointed with the ‘oil of gladness’ at our confirmation. Dear fathers, you have been twice so anointed, at your confirmation and at your priestly ordination. And you are dispensers, ministers, of the oil of gladness to those in your care. Never let the ‘gladness’ in your calling dry up. Meet the challenges with gladness. Enable, with gladness, those whom you serve to be the priestly people of God. Have confidence in the work God has given you, which is both the irreducible core, and the joy of your vocation: to be a steward of the mysteries and a teacher of the faith.
Thank you, dear fathers, for your ministry. May the Lord bless you as you lead God’s people through the mystery of the cross to the glory of the resurrection this Holy Week and Easter. Thank you, fathers and beloved people of God, for your prayers for me.
The Rt Revd Jonathan Baker is the Bishop of Fulham.
This sermon was preached at his Chrism Mass.