Jonathan Baker explores the place of the Holy Oils in the work of salvation
Who could have imagined that two years ago, when we gathered in this church, filled to capacity – even the galleries were full – for the renewal of ordination promises and the blessing of oils, that there would be no Chrism Mass at all in 2020, and this comparatively modest celebration in 2021? You do not need to me to tell you that the last twelve months have been a time of trial, a year like no other in the lifetime of anyone at all, I suspect, in this building now. Thanks be to God that we are here, here to be refreshed by the living waters, the deep well-springs of our faith in word and sacrament. Thank you to all of you, priests, deacons and all the people of God who have felt able to be present here this morning. Thank you to the Bishop of London, the Bishop of Southwark, and a goodly cohort of the venerable, brother and sister archdeacons, for supporting us with your presence.
I think we are more conscious than ever this year that this celebration falls in Holy Week. Every year, in the northern hemisphere at least, we are blessed by that congruity between natural time and sacred time: as the days lengthen and nature offers us everywhere signs of new life, so we celebrate the resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead and the coming of that new creation of which it is the first fruits. This year, as we take the first hesitant steps along the way of the easing of Covid restrictions and we creep towards the release from lockdown, we cannot but be struck by this further congruity with the mother and Queen of all feasts, soon to be upon us, when we shall shout out with joy that the stone has been rolled away and Life has risen from the grave. The bishop’s breathing over the Oil of Chrism in this morning’s rite is indeed a sign of resurrection and of the sending of the Holy Spirit, even as the risen Lord breathed on the disciples on the evening of the first Easter Day and empowered them with the gift of the Spirit for the forgiveness of sins.
But, before Easter, the Cross; before resurrection, sacrifice. Chastened by the pandemic, our prayer must be that we may learn again to put aside all vanity, the idols born of ego, and to anchor ourselves afresh in Christ alone, and Him crucified. We must listen to the preaching of the bishop, St John of Ephesus, in our second reading: ‘Every eye will see him, every one who pierced him; and all the tribes on the earth will wail on account of him.’ Those words point us back, of course, to the prophecy of Zechariah: ‘They shall look on him whom they have pierced,’ to which St John the Evangelist also alludes at his crucifixion scene. Here at the beginning of the Book of Revelation, they are applied to the Lord’s return at the end of time: the Coming One remains the Pierced One, marked with the wounds of the Cross. In the Fourth Gospel, it is Lord’s wounded side, his pierced side, pierced with the lance, from which flow blood and water, the source of sacramental life in the Church.
In the Palm Sunday passion Gospel which we heard on Sunday, the passion according to St Mark this year, we met the woman from Bethany – Mary, let’s call her, following St John – who, by means of a dramatic and a reckless symbolic action, proclaims Jesus to be the Christ, the Anointed One. She pours the whole of a jar of costly oil onto Our Lord’s head; down it runs, no doubt, spilling onto his clothes and even onto his hands and feet, the hands and the feet which will be pierced by nails on Good Friday. Jesus tells all present that she has done a beautiful thing, in anointing his body for burial. You’ll remember of course that this anointing comes in between the plot first being hatched to kill Jesus, and Judas Iscariot putting it decisively into action by betraying him to the plotters. This anointing, then, is intimately associated with the death of the Lord, with the coming sacrifice. Meanwhile, Gethsemane, where Jesus will be seized and from which all his disciples will flee in confusion, is literally the olive garden, the place of the olive press.
The oils then, which we bless and consecrate today, take their place in the sacramental life of the Church as the means whereby we share in the life of Christ the anointed one who was anointed for burial before his resurrection, who went through the olive press and the wine press in order that life-giving blood and water might be the result. Each of the oils reveals something to us about our participation in Christ, our being conformed to his character, to the mysteries of his living, his dying, and his rising again.
The oil of baptism is very obviously a preparation for the foundational sacrament of the Christian life, whereby we are made one with Christ in his death and in his resurrection. It speaks of the Cross as our defence, the means by which sin and death are defeated, and we are protected against all evil. The oil for the healing of the sick reminds us that the Cross is also immortal medicine, for ‘by his wounds we are healed.’
What of the Oil of Chrism, the oil which St Augustine describes as ‘fire,’ the means by which the newly baptized, who have been ‘moistened’ by the waters of baptism, can become freshly baked bread, Eucharistic bread? Tertullian, African theologian of the second and early third century, and a champion of the faith against the gnostics, wrote, famously, caro cardo salutis, the flesh is the hinge of salvation. In the same passage he continues, with reference to this holy oil, ‘the flesh is anointed so that soul may be dedicated to holiness.’ The point about the Oil of Chrism is that it seals conformity to Christ in leading a cross-shaped life, a life of discipleship, witness, and service. This is why it is used in confirmation, that sacrament which is all about growing up into Christian maturity, bearing Christ’s image more deeply, and sharing more completely in His mission.
If the Oil of Chrism in Christian initiation is about the anointing of the whole people of God to lead what I have called cross-shaped lives, then, my brother priests, there is for you a further anointing which marks you out in a particular way for a life characterised by sacrifice after the example of Our Lord Jesus Christ. At your priestly ordination, your hands were anointed with this noble oil, anointed precisely because you were being set apart to offer the holy sacrifice of the Lord’s Body and Blood, to do sacramentally what Our Lord (and He alone) did in the flesh on the altar of the Cross. How fitting it is, that when they are consecrated, altars too are anointed with Holy Chrism, for by that anointing they truly become symbols of Christ and thus tables of sacrifice as well as of banquet. The anointing of all the baptised in confirmation; the anointing of those set apart to offer sacrifice at priestly ordination; the anointing of the altar to be the sign of Christ, who is the very sacrifice itself. Or perhaps we should put all of that the other way around – because Christ, our Head and Teacher is the true altar, we, his priests (the royal priesthood of the baptised and the ministerial priesthood of the ordained) are also spiritual altars on which to make the sacrifice of a holy life offered to God.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, as we move through this Holy Week to Easter, in this time which is more freighted than usual with expectation, promise, with the awakening of fresh hope and new life, may you all find a renewed confidence in your faith, joy in the Gospel, a rekindling of your first love for the Lord: and may you know all of this through the liturgies, rites and sacraments of the coming great days. May you truly know the anointing of the Holy Spirit in your lives, of which the Holy Chrism, the fire-feeder, and all the oils, are sacramental signs. Thank you for being the people of God, in times of trial and in times of joy. Brother priests, and deacons, may you know that joy in your ministry, that joy which Pope Francis tells us has its source in the Father’s love. Thank you for your leadership and your service in such testing times. May your churches – themselves anointed, figuratively or literally, with the holy Chrism, signs on earth of the Jerusalem above – ring out with Easter praises, to the glory of Him who suffered for us, but who lives and reigns, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever.
The Rt Revd Jonathan Baker is the Bishop of Fulham. This sermon was preached at his Chrism Mass held at St Andrew’s, Holborn.