The Bishop of Lewes
It strikes me that through our Lenten observance we have been seeking something like a pedicure with our whole lives, seeking to scrape off the dead skin, the hardness of our hearts before we prepare, all of us, to make our own baptismal promises once again. To be anointed, as it were, once again to do God’s work in the world. Whilst our feet maybe our physical foundation God is the foundation of our foundation. ‘Oh that today you will listen to his voice. Harden not your hearts’
Much of what I say today is of course aimed at those who are ordained – this is always an incredibly special day for those who are gifted in being called priests and deacons of God’s church. A day when we are reminded of our call, of the promises that we made at ordination but also for us all to reflect on the promises that were made for us at baptism and that we made at confirmation before we all on Easter day make those baptismal promises once again.
But are we ready to remake those promises? We no doubt come today still full of worry and concern. Are we ready? We come after a draught of Chrism. We come to strip back the hardness of our hearts, to remember with joy the anointing we received. But speaking personally, I suspect there’s still much dead skin to be removed. Much that needs to be scraped away to reveal the sweet scent of Chrism. We have had the trauma of the pandemic. All that affected us personally, but also affected our church, our spiritual lives, our congregations, everything that we are, all that the clergy had to adjust and seek to lead in different ways. So much change. So much that concerned us and concerns us still. Will people come back? How do we engage in this new nervous time with the people who have had their very foundations shook? How does the church engage with them anew? And then I suspect there are some harnesses that have built up over the years even before the pandemic. I think there’s a hardness in the hearts of many Catholic Anglicans. We have allowed our hardness to grow within us when things haven’t always gone our way. We have a fear of what the church will look like in five, ten, fifteen years and we remain fearful of what may come that seeks to divide us further. This all hardens our hearts. It too easily can make us withdraw, retreat, encase our hearts in some sort of steel armour so we can no longer hurt. And all that is before the day-to-day life, the priestly and diaconal life, or the life of the baptised or confirmed. Full of joys, yes, but full of small disappointments and fears, anxiousness and concerns.
But today isn’t about seeking to fix any of those things directly but it is about going back to the heart of our call – to be reminded once again of that voice that calls to each of us giving us our vocation, to recommit to that priestly and diaconal life and if we do that, just as we stand on the cusp of the great three days. That will make everything possible because if you really capture that call then we will live that life. A life that seeks to recollect the unconditional love of God, his hope and his joy. That is the charge that he gives each of us today. It is that charge held so beautifully in that Gospel passage that like so many of the events of Holy Week we are called to put ourselves within that scripture, within that life.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon us because he has anointed us to bring good news to the poor. He has sent us to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind. To let the oppressed go free. To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. This scripture has been fulfilled in our hearing. So let us go, renewed by the sacraments we have received, armed with the tools of the Church back into the world to proclaim God’s love, God’s hope, God’s joy, God’s resurrection.
The Bishop of Richborough
We meet again as we are after a two-year gap, still recovering from Covid, facing new daily anxieties in the Ukraine and an accelerating rise in the cost of living, perhaps we need a few comfort blankets, some accessible and supportive words of wisdom to help us through the next few months and years.
Although our churches responded well to the challenges of the lockdown and I know we can share story after story of ways in which we rose to the challenge – learning new technologies, organising and supporting food banks, maintaining as best as possible sacramental worship, and keeping in touch with one another, the reality is that our congregations have become smaller, our confidence undermined and for many of us, our children and young people have yet to return to church.
I thought more would have been made of the fact that it is one hundred years since The Velveteen Rabbit was first published. Written by Margery Williams it became something of a bestseller in the 1970s and a regular illustration in sermons and retreat addresses. Probably it was overused and became so familiar it lost its impact and appeal.
The line we probably most remember comes in a conversation between the Rabbit and the Skin Horse about how ‘Real isn’t how you are made… It’s a thing that happens to you’ and goes as follows: ‘Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out, you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.’
We are here because we know that in this Chrism Mass Liturgy, God speaks to us abundantly – waiting only for us to be attentive, to listen and to respond – as a gathered community and as Christian disciples. Within the Catholic tradition we share together a rich treasury. We have the bedrock of Scripture, the foundation stones that are the writings of the Western and Eastern Fathers, centuries of prayer and devotion, seven holy sacraments and the prayers of the saints in heaven.
What more could we want or need as we pilgrimage through life? And today is a day that brings all of these together as we re-affirm our faith and in the blessing and consecration of holy oil we rejoice in our salvation, people of God born again of water and the Spirit.
The last two years have been difficult and complex for us all. Everyone has experienced and continues to experience anxiety which often manifests itself in a loss of energy and confidence. I’ve felt it, we have all felt it. For me- maybe for you – more hair rubbed off, eyesight fading, a few more aches and pains – an inch on the waist!
And so, as Holy Church requires, speaking to you the clergy, my message this year is – don’t be too hard on yourselves. It is going to take a long time to recover, and I know many of you are worrying and fretting. So today, the first time we have been able to meet together for such a long time, is about renewing our faithfulness to Christ as ministers of Word and Sacrament, humbly focussed on living out our vocation as priests and deacons.
And to you my beloved brothers and sisters, knowing how vulnerable we all are, encourage your priests and pastors sharing with them as best you can the privileges and responsibilities of life in Christ.
From Margery Williams to my friend Saint Teresa of Avila, one of the great spiritual giants. Speaking encouraging words to her sisters, in the convent of Saint Joseph, Teresa wrote this:
‘Imagine the Lord himself is at your side and see how lovingly and humbly he is teaching you…
Christ is a very good friend because we behold him as man and see him with weaknesses and trials
and he is company for us.
Do you think it is a small thing to have such a friend as this?’
The Bishop of Wakefield
As I journey around the churches I see many different versions circulating at this present time; some of which I could never have thought of: Messy Church, Sweaty Church, Sporty Church, Forest Church, Active Church and Muddy Church to name just a few. All that made me think about what we are celebrating today: the Chrism Mass, the original Smelly Mass, for it is this mass that makes the oils for our sacraments, those most fragrant offerings of God’s fragrant people.
The sacraments join us humans to the spiritual realm and so our sacred liturgies necessarily engage our senses. Sound and light are perhaps the most obvious, for the liturgy is sacred drama, with sounds of prayer and song, bell and organ, and sights of processions and postures, fabric and metal, art and architecture, by light of candle or leaded window. But taste also comes into play as well, as the accidents of bread and wine veil Sacred Flesh and Blood. Touch also, as oil and water and even skin-upon-skin effect the sacraments.
But even that least considered member, the nose, and perhaps that most neglected sense, smell, are drawn into the mysteries by aromas not just of palm, olive and perfume, but of smoke, incense and ashes, bread and wine, oil and wax, flowers and pine needles.
Anointing is mentioned in our readings today. The prayer of consecration of the Chrism reminds us “through the sacred mystery of this anointing oil, you have bestowed upon the human race the manifold riches of your grace, that your sons and daughters, born again in the font of baptism, may be strengthened by the anointing of the Spirit; and, being conformed to your Christ, they may receive a share in his office of prophet, priest, and king”.
Baptism, Confirmation, Ordination and Anointing for the Sick and Dying are all sacraments of smell. There we encounter the scents of Christian initiation, vocation and healing, the true odours of sanctity. And these ordinary means of salvation receive their extraordinary meaning and power from that Sacred Triduum which we will soon be celebrating.
Come Good Friday there will be even more confronting pong of human bodies, torture, and death: blood, sweat and tears, leather, wood and iron, vinegar and hyssop, dank tomb, and funerary spices. Our final smell is the very one with which the Lord’s story began, as the lords of the earth honoured and warned the infant King with myrrh, the spice murmuring that his life would be short and sacrificial. Now we smell that herb once more, on that day when humanity kills its God and God enters the deepest solidarity with the suffering and dead. God descends to the Limbo of all victims of human hate and indifference. Good Friday smells of cruelty and oblivion.
Yet the Good Friday stench, we know, is not the end. Easter begins with the smells of disappointed apostles huddled in a locked room, of confused holy women with their unused spices, of sweaty Peter and John running to an empty tomb. But there are also the perfumes of a garden where the Magdalene mistakes the Risen Lord for gardener, and of bread when excited disciples recognise Him at the first Eucharists. People speak of the odour of sanctity associated with the remains of saints: how much more beautiful must the source of that perfume have been, our Risen Lord?
If the scents of today’s celebration tell of service and anxiety, Good Friday those of violence and grief, Easter Day will be the perfumes of triumph and hope. But it all begins today as we smell the beginnings of the sacraments that will mediate those moods and mysteries to us and the beginnings of the priesthood that will be agents of those graces. So today in our Smelly Mass, thanks be to God for the gift of the sacraments! Thanks be to God for all the priests who dispense them!
The Bishop of Fulham
All month a smell of burning, of dry peat
smouldering in the bogs.
Even the birds have stopped singing,
the aspen does not tremble.
The god of wrath glares in the sky,
the fields have been parched since Easter.
A one-legged pilgrim stood in the yard
with his mouth full of prophecies:
‘Beware of terrible times…the earth
opening for a crowd of corpses.
Expect famine, earthquakes, plagues,
and heavens darkened by eclipses.
‘But our land will not be divided
by the enemy at his pleasure:
the Mother-of-God will spread
a white shroud over these great sorrows.
From the burning wood drifts
the sweet smell of juniper.
widows grieve over their brood,
the village rings with their lamentation.
If the land thirsted, it was not in vain,
nor were the prayers wasted;
for a warm red rain soaks
the trampled fields.
Low, low hangs the empty sky,
tender is the voice of the supplicant:
‘They wound Thy most holy body,
They are casting lots for Thy garments.’
This World War I poem immediately made me think of the terrible situation in Ukraine: mothers grieving for the children, the sound of lamentation, defiance in the face of the enemy who would divide the land at his pleasure. It was therefore startling to discover that the author was the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, who was born in 1889 in Odessa – now Ukraine’s Black Sea port, but then in the Russian Empire. She died in 1966, having lived most of her adult life as a citizen of the Soviet Union. The poem, entitled ‘July 1914’, was written in commemoration of the declaration of war by Germany on Russia. Read today, it reminds us of the horrors of war, transferable from one conflict to another, but which also forces us to reflect on some of the complexities of the history of the nation and people of Ukraine in their grievous suffering.
It’s also a deeply Christian piece. In the dead and wounded of Ukraine, the Body of Christ is in agony, the suffering of the members the suffering of the Head. And, as been pointed out so many times in the past weeks and months of this dreadful time, the agony is all the sharper because, overwhelmingly, those who suffer do so at the hands of members of the same spiritual family, the same communion: they suffer at the hands of their brothers and sisters in the Lord.
All of us here who have been called by the Lord and His Church to the sacred ministry can use the opportunity at this mass of renewing the promises made at our ordination to reflect on our own ministry in the light of those words spoken to us when we were ordained. Where are we with the Lord in the stewardship of his flock? We are far away from this conflict which nevertheless feels so close. Yet we know that in our ministry in this nation, this city, in our parishes and institutions: that every day is a day of fresh commitment, a fresh decision under God, to strive (despite our weaknesses and in the power of the Holy Spirit) to be good shepherds and stewards of the flock. So, with the life of the deacon, the priest, the bishop, in Christ, as with that of all the baptised, all the whole people of God: it begins, and it continues, day by day, in our own hearts, in prayer and in repentance for our sins.
At the heart of the Chrism Mass sit the blessing and consecration of the Holy Oils. Each of these, so often called the ‘tools of the trade’ for priests and bishops, is composed of olive oil, the Oil of Chrism having balsam mixed in. Olive oil, in Scripture and in the ancient world, was considered good for many things and we think not only of the oil, the fruit of the olive tree, but of the tree itself. For it was of course a freshly plucked olive leaf which the dove bore in its mouth when it returned to Noah for the second time, as he waited in the ark for the flood waters to recede. Then Noah knew that the waters had subsided and that the olive tree was alive and growing and there was new life upon the earth. The dove’s olive branch signified, therefore, a fresh start for humanity, and for peace and reconciliation between God and humankind. The olive branch is a sign, the Cross is the fulfilment; the ministry in which we share that of Christ crucified and risen for our salvation – the word which, instructively, is in Greek, also means ‘healing.’
The poem which prompted these thoughts on war, ministry, and reconciliation ends with the image of Mary, the theotokos, spreading out a shroud over the sorrows surely calls to mind the Protecting Veil of the Mother of God, one of the great feasts of Orthodoxy dating from the tenth century and particularly dear to the Orthodox of Ukraine. May Blessed Mary, the Queen of Peace, pray for peace in Ukraine, for peace in the world, for peace in our homes and in our hearts. May Mary the Queen of Priests pray for you my brothers and strengthen you in your ministry – the ministry for which we are so thankful. May Our Lady of Walsingham pray for us all, now and at the hour of our death.
The Bishop of Chichester
‘They shall repair the ruined cities’
As Jesus unfolds the scriptures that speak about his identity and mission, today’s reading from Isaiah gives us some sense of the effect of his saving work.
The spiritual and moral processes of liberation that are good news for the poor also give shape to the built environment where freedom and justice flourish. The repair of the earthly city is an emblem of the year of the Lord’s favour, the year of Jubilee.
Poor quality housing, schools and hospitals, along with overcrowded roads that pollute community space – these are the evil signs of institutional greed which corrodes relationships and contaminates the earth. And then there is continuing atrocity in Ukraine. The images from that warzone should be like icons in our liturgy this year, illuminating the power of truth and love in our celebration of the paschal mystery of Easter. And the power of that work is, quite literally, in your hands as I was reminded by a photograph of two Ukrainian army chaplains conducting the marriage of a young couple serving in the army.
Over their combat uniforms they wore the orthodox style stole and the two ornamented cuffs (epimanikia) which are a sign of ordained ministry in that tradition. These cuffs gave an extraordinary emphasis to the hands of the two priests and what they were making possible.
Surrounded by the debris and impact of hostility, priests and laity together were enacting a profound commitment to unity in its most intimate form of mutual self-giving, and to their part in shaping a new society, a protest of love arising from the ashes of war. They were starting to repair the ruined cities.
The epimanikia cuffs are a small detail that reminds us of the work God entrusts to us.
The newly-weds, kneeling in the dust of a Ukrainian outpost, are one example of that. But so is the person you anoint with the oil of the sick in an overheated flat, smelling of neglect. So too is the gorgeous baby you baptise and mark with the oil of catechumens. And so is the 56 year old that episcopal hands confirm, sealing the gifts of the Holy Spirit with the oil of Chrism in the cross marked between tattoos on the forehead, a perpetual reminder of how grace transforms us but does not re-write our history.
The demands and sorrows of the recent past will also be written in the hands of deacons, priests and bishops as we renew our joyful commitment to the Lord’s service. It has sometimes been difficult to summon up the imagination and energy to repair the ruined cities, which in terms of our parishes and Church institutions will be about nurturing and re-nurturing our congregations as missionary disciples; recovering the rhythms of silence, retreat, study, reflection, and holding the barbs, the enthusiasms and the sorrows of those we serve.
Thanks be to God for my partners in the gospel who go on being a sign of hope and encouragement for the people they serve in the name of Jesus Christ. He knows you and loves you, and he says this to you: ‘Give me your hand, put it into my side’. For Thomas, that encounter with the risen Lord was a moment of re-invigoration in his vocation and faith, as he responds, “My Lord and my God.” For us, the wounded side of Jesus is the source of sacramental life – water and blood, baptism and the Eucharist.
Immerse yourselves, at his invitation, in the grace of these gifts and remember with joy and confidence these words of ordination encouragement:
Know what you are doing and imitate the mystery you celebrate: model your life on the cross of our glorious Saviour, Jesus Christ.