Highlights from this year’s services and sermons
The Bishop of Fulham
At the beginning of the rite for the ordination of priests, according to the Common Worship ordinal, the bishop tells the congregation that priests are called to share with the bishop in the oversight of the Church, ‘delighting in its beauty’. Too often the beauty of the church can feel vanishingly elusive, and if we allow ourselves to dwell on institutional injustice or high-handedness (real or imagined), or disunity, or the hostility or indifference of the society within which we are set, then of course we can become anxious, resentful or prey to the demons of disillusion and despair. But no. Our delight in the Church is not because she is institutionally perfect or that she carries all before her by way of worldly power and influence, but because she is the sacrament of Jesus Christ. Think of another image beloved early Christian thinkers and revived by the fathers of the Second Vatican Council: the Church relates to Christ as the Moon to the Sun, the moon having no light of its own, but always reflecting the light it is given by the sun. (Incidentally, it’s no coincidence that Our Lady is likewise so often depicted in the Tradition as being like the moon, for her light too is a reflection of that of her divine Son.)
So we delight in the beauty of the Church because we delight in the ultimate beauty which is God in Christ; to adapt the metaphor of moon and sun, we can say that the beauty of the Church derives wholly from that of her Lord and Head, Jesus Christ. Thus the Church is not a problem to be solved or an obstacle to be explained away; she is one with her Lord in his suffering and in his majesty, wounded (as he is) yet glorious.
But the Christ who is ultimate Beauty is not just Head of the Church, but, as we pray on the Solemnity of Christ the King (and not only then), King of the Universe. The oils which sit at the heart of this Chrism liturgy are central among the means by which, through the mission of the Church, the Kingdom of Christ, the Kingdom of God, is extended in time and space. The oil of baptism quite literally assists in the growth of the Kingdom in the number of its citizens, as men and women everywhere are prepared for incorporation into Christ, prepared for that regeneration via water and the Spirit which is the fruit of Christian initiation. The oil of the sick is an effective sign which protects those who have been born again into Christ and transferred into the light of his Kingdom against the incursions of the world, the flesh and the devil in the guise of sickness, sin and death.
The oil of chrism is sacramental of the conformity of all creation to Christ. Those anointed with this noble oil are made priests after the likeness of Christ the High Priest – those so anointed in confirmation, endowed with the full dignity of the common priesthood of the people of God, those further anointed at their ordination, with the distinctive (though not superior) charism of the ministerial priesthood. And just has Christ himself is sent by the Father – and sends the Spirit – in order to draw all things back to the Father who is in heaven, so the whole Church here on earth, those baptised and confirmed and those baptised, confirmed and ordained, is possessed of the mission to lay all things at Christ’s feet, and to bring all things under his just and gentle rule.
The Bishop of Beverley
‘Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’
Jesus quotes from the prophecy of Isaiah in quite an audacious way, having walked into the synagogue ‘as was his custom’. He finds his desired text from within the scroll and begins: ‘The spirit of the Lord has been given to me …’ Is it not equally audacious for us to have these passages from the Prophets and Gospels read today, during this Mass? Today, as the people of God in this place, we boldly associate ourselves with these texts. Today, while remembering that they were first uttered by Isaiah, then repeated by Jesus, we re-read them deliberately in the context of the renewal of ordination vows and the blessing of oils.
Today is about our deacons, priests and bishops. Today is about the sacred oils that enable them to fulfil their calling. Today is about the whole people of God from whom these sacred ministers are called. Above all, however, today is about the kingship of the universal high priest, Jesus Christ – through him, we are taught, ‘all things came into being’.
‘He came to what was his own … and all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.’ Today, the scripture has been fulfilled in your presence. Pope Benedict XVI, put it like this: ‘What did Jesus actually bring? … What has he brought? The answer is very simple. God. He has brought God… and now we know his face … now we know the path we human beings have to take in this world.’
Do we have the courage individually and collectively to say, ‘The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me?’ Do we have the audacity to say individually and collectively, ‘This scripture is being fulfilled today in your hearing.’? What does the church actually bring? What have we brought? The answer should be simple: God. Today’s Mass reminds us – we are to bring God, that others may know has face. Pray for your bishops, priests and deacons. Pray earnestly for all the baptized. That all people may have the opportunity to be anointed with sacred oil and the sweet, glorious aroma of salvation.
The Bishop of Chichester
Exile and an unknown future are at the heart of our identity as Christians. After our disobedient rebellion against God we leave behind the garden of Eden, and the way to the tree of life is guarded from us by seraphim wielding fiery swords. We join the Exodus of the children of Israel who are the model for our pilgrimage through this vale of tears and death, and we confront the experience of bringing about exile in a Babylon of our own making, a deeper alienation from God and discovery that we do not know how to sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land.
The author of the Letter to the Hebrews declares that ‘here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come’. Like the exile and refugee of our own time, our Christian identity resides in having the courage to say, ‘I am a refugee. My true home is the heavenly Jerusalem, where God is. My instincts and my greatest sense of security are drawn from what I know of life in that kingdom.’
As ordained ministers of the new Covenant, it is our task to nurture the instinct for life in that kingdom. This is why we should be confident about describing our churches as gymnasia of the Christian imagination, and ourselves as the guardians and animators of the eternal realities disclosed within them. They are sacred places where we rehearse the practice of life in the presence of God and the emblems of its life, in word and sacrament, are given to us on trust.
This year, as we prepare to celebrate the coronation of King Charles, the sacred emblems that are given to him by the Church speak to us of this bold claim: that in the struggles of our exile on earth we are duty bound so to shape our common life that it can be seen to reveal the contours of the kingdom of heaven.
The royal sceptres of mercy and truth are symbols of the virtues needed for this; the universal kingship of Christ is represented by the orb surmounted by the cross; the crown is given by the Church to the earthly monarch as the symbol of accountability to the only ‘ruler of rulers’, God himself, and it is worn in acknowledgement of judgement entrusted by the Father to Jesus Christ, who established this kingdom when he was crowned with thorns and enthroned upon the cross.
Sheila Cassidy’s Good Friday People and a young Ukrainian A-level student who recently addressed a gathering at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton with the words ‘I never expected to say, I am a refugee’ come to mind. For it is the poor in spirit and those who are persecuted for righteousness sake who will inherit this kingdom. It is the refugee and those who have been dehumanised by hatred and greed who are most likely to recognise the workings of divine love, which subverts the economics of attainment and control because laughter, love, and the intelligence of the human conscience are irreducible signs of the divine freedom at work in us.
At ordination to the priesthood, you were anointed to serve the poor and the exile with that same oil of Chrism that makes a mortal being into an earthly monarch. Together, we are accountable to God for the people we serve. Empowered by grace, you continue to make life qualitatively different in a culture that has does so much to suffocate the spirit and extinguish the glory of the living God.
So, as exiles who prepare to celebrate Easter and the eternal hope that is in us, let the final word of this homily be an echo from the liturgy of our early centuries, in which Christ declares: ‘I am the life of the dead. Arise…you who were fashioned in my image. Rise, let us go hence; for you in me and I in you, together we are one undivided person…. The cherubim throne has been prepared, the bearers are ready and waiting, the bridal chamber is in order…the kingdom of heaven has been prepared since before the ages began.’
The Bishop of Richborough
Olive oil, as is often said, is quite simply distilled sunshine. It is the fruit of summer sun and has a taste of the Mediterranean. The psalms as we know are full of references to oil, where it is best described as ‘the oil of gladness (Ps 45.7). For oil is a fundamental part of our bodiliness. ‘Oily membranes differentiate the smallest parts of our bodies, govern the flow in and out of each cell, protect our skin and communicate sensations throughout our bodies.’
The theologian Timothy Radcliffe in Taking the Plunge describes olive oil as a sort of anti–suntan lotion. Our holiday oil protects us from the sun, whereas our holy oil protects us from darkness. As he has reflected: ‘We are rubbed down in the oil of Christ, the rising sun who has overcome the power of the night. When Judas goes to betray Jesus, John tells us that “it was night” (Jn13.30). You and I are anointed in the fruit of Easter morning.’ Beautiful and poetic sentiments that warm our hearts.
But let’s go a little deeper. Gethsemane, the place where like the olive Jesus was crushed. The Place where, as St Luke, blessed physician, records ‘his sweat like drops of blood fell to the ground’. That it was in an olive grove that Jesus felt the full weight and burden of his vocation, crushing and overwhelming him should not be lost on us. For the anointed one, was about to anoint humankind, not with the fruit of the olive, but with his blood and sweat and tears. No wonder when Jesus entered the synagogue in Nazareth he opened the scroll with the words of Isaiah: ‘The Spirit of the Lord has been given to me, for he has anointed me!’
Yet there is no evidence that Jesus was ever actually anointed with sacred oil during his earthly life. Anointed in the Spirit, yes –at his baptism in the Jordan… but not with sacred oil. Matthew Mark and John do however record an anointing of Jesus – but this is by Mary of Bethany. While Luke records the anointing by an anonymous woman of uncertain character, later by tradition, associated with Mary Magdalene. What is significant to all four gospel writers, however, is the realization that this anointing of a rabbi, by a woman, was at that time, to those around him, both scandalous and sacrilegious and yet allowed and owned by Jesus. Here is Jesus, the true priest the true king, the true prophet who finds himself reproving his most trusted disciple (St Luke): ‘Peter – you gave me no kiss. You did not put oil on my head!’
For although there is no record of our Lord’s sacral anointing there is the recording of his final act with his disciples, the washing of their feet. No less, even more scandalous than the anointing at Bethany. The final enacted parable. The memory engrained in the minds of the disciples, the humble action of a servant that the Church has struggled with ever since. The King of kings and Lord of Lords kneeling before his friends and washing their feet.
In her liturgy, Holy Church has ritualized that physical remembrance of the foot washing once a year in the drama of Maundy Thursday. But is this how Jesus intended it to be remembered? Rather, surely it is in the living out practically of how human beings created in the image of his heavenly Father should relate to one another. The sacred monarch, the anointed one – as servant king.
It should not be lost on us that the oil from Gethsemane blessed and consecrated by the Patriarch of Jerusalem has been harvested near the resting place of Princess Alice of Battenberg, the late Duke of Edinburgh’s mother and grandmother to King Charles, whose own life was lived out sacrificially after the example of Christ.
As the coronation approaches, what of us? We may not live in the court of royal princes, but we are full members of the household of God. Is not water poured on the crown of our heads at baptism? Is not sacred oil indelibly inscribed on our foreheads at confirmation? Is not healing oil ministered in times of sickness and at our death?
And to my beloved priests. At your ordination you are anointed on your hands with the holy oil of Chrism. Not only that those hands be set apart for the altar but also more importantly to be used for Christ in the washing of feet. And as we know all too well, and share with all who are called to sacral ministry, that brings a cost to be borne by each of us. And were I, for a moment, to speculate how best Christ would want to be remembered? Surely it would be in his final act of humility; kneeling lovingly before his disciples in service rather than state.
The Bishop of Oswestry
And at his resurrection from the dead – in all his Risen Victory – having accomplished the purpose for which he came, Christ imparted his on-going mission to his Holy Apostles to proclaim his victory to the ends of the earth and to apply his victory to the souls of those still bound in this world by the double agony of sin and death. In the Upper Room on Easter Day he breathed upon his Holy Apostles and gave them a measure of the Spirit with which he himself had been anointed; his redemptive work of making all things new again he committed to them and to those who would follow them in historic succession, until he comes again; at his resurrection he inaugurated the Age of the Church, so that all who share in his ministry through the Church’s life might fearlessly take it forth into the world, and minister and manifest Christ’s victory to souls in distress. Interestingly, the Greek word behind ‘anointed’ here in Isaiah’s prophecy is ‘Echrisen’ from which we get ‘Chrism’. Jesus was ‘chrismed’ by the Holy Spirit to undertake his great work of redemption. He who was chrismed by the Spirit, in turn chrisms his Apostles with the Spirit, and communicates to them his mission. And you too, my dear brother-priests, through the Apostolic Succession of Christ’s ministry in his Church, you too have been chrismed, given a particular share in Christ’s High Priesthood and his great mission to rescue souls from Death and Hell. Christ our Rescuer is still rolling out his rescue plan through the Church and her priests.
And how is that plan rolled out; how is it delivered? Through strategies and spreadsheets, of course… God forbid! Well, those are only helpful up to a point. No, through sacraments, of course! For it is through the sacraments – in which these oils we bless and consecrate today will be used – that Jesus continues to apply his victory to the souls of people until he comes again; through his sacraments that union with God is begun; through the sacraments that sickness of body & soul is healed; through the sacraments that blindness is enlightened and sin-sickness absolved; through the sacraments that the Risen Saviour gives his very Body and very Blood to his people to fortify them in their earthly pilgrimage through the Vale of Tears; through the sacraments that God’s jubilee is declared and effected. You have been given the singular honour of being ministers of these sacraments. You are priests of a Covenant of Life! Through you, Fathers, Christ is balming and chrisming, and sanctifying his people until he comes.
Be reawakened today, then, to the privilege of the sacred priestly office and ministry that was conferred indelibly upon you at your ordination, and be renewed in zeal for the task which Christ – our great High Priest – has given you to serve him. And be not for a moment turned aside nor cast down from the priestly task given uniquely to you. Yes, discouragement stalks the Church like a roaring lion; yes, cynicism is seeking whom it may devour; yes, it can at times seem that the Institutional Church is losing her way and is ever less aware of the sacraments in God’s purposes of salvation; and yes, the exhaustion and consequences of the pandemic are still felt in our parishes and in our hearts. Yes, all of these are real, but nowhere near as real as the supernatural sacramental grace you minister as Priests of the Sacrifice of Christ, for the things that discourage us are temporary and fleeting – they belong to a world that is passing away – whereas it is Christ our Rescuer who in you and through you is ministering to his people; your priesthood is Christ at work in you. And he will carry you. He will bear you up. Remember what you pray when vesting with the chasuble: ‘O Lord Jesus Christ who said my yoke is easy and my burden light, grant that I may bear it well and follow after you with thanksgiving’.