There is a lot happening in tonight’s liturgy.
Perhaps we can follow one of the leads the Liturgy gives and fly like migrating birds, away from the cold and the dark and the snow, to a sunlit Mediterranean hillside and a grove of olive trees, leaves glistening in a gentle wind. It’s with olive trees tonight’s liturgy begins.
Arbor feta alma luce
Hoc sacrandum protulit.
This is from an old Latin hymn the Liturgy offers for today to accompany the procession of the Holy Oils.
‘On the fertile tree the kindly sunlight
formed this offering
which your people, bowing down,
to the ages’ Saviour bring.’
Behind the Sacraments stands creation. On the first page of Genesis, fruit-bearing trees are mentioned, trees with their seed inside them, each according to its kind. ‘And God saw that it was good. And evening came and morning came, the third day’ (Gen 1:13). One of tonight’s prayers echoes this: ‘For in the beginning you commanded the earth to produce fruit-bearing plants, and among them the olive tree, to bring forth the great richness of this Oil, that its fruit might serve for the making of sacred Chrism.’
At the Offertory of the Mass, bread and wine are brought to the altar, ‘fruit of the earth and work of human hands’ to become by the power of Christ ‘the bread of life’ and ‘our spiritual drink’. And so tonight the oil, through all the complex modern processes of harvesting and production and distribution and retailing, fruit of the olive and work of human hands, makes its way up the aisle to the altar. It comes to be transformed by Christ, the one anointed by the Holy Spirit. Through tonight’s liturgy the oil – or oils (all three of them) – become vehicles of the Holy Spirit. They are blessed by the bishop. They are entrusted to the priests. They will be used by them and the bishop in different sacraments and liturgies throughout the year: in baptism, confirmation and the anointing of the sick, the dedication of altars and churches, the ordinations of priests and bishops.
Consecrare tu dignare,
Rex perennis patriae,
Hoc olivum, signum vivum,
Iura contra daemonum.
‘King of our eternal homeland
consecrate this olive oil
for our use: a living sign
which Satan’s evil laws will foil.’
So here’s a river flowing out of the physical creation, flowing to the altar, and there, by the touch of Christ, becoming a river of grace, an instrument of the Holy Spirit, and then flowing on and over us. This is a beautiful thing. It is a privilege to share in it. And share in it we do. There can be hardly anyone here whom this oil has not, as it were, splashed.
There are three oils and three purposes purposes: healing, strengthening, consecrating.
The first oil, blessed at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer, is the oil of the sick: ‘a safeguard for body, mind and spirit,’ says the blessing, ‘to take away every pain, every infirmity and every sickness.’ It conveys a grace of healing.
The second blessing, at the end of Mass, is of the oil of catechumens. And its prayer goes: ‘grant fortitude to [those] who are anointed with it…[may they] receive your divine wisdom and strength.’
The third and last oil, not just blessed but consecrated, is the chrism. It gives the anointing par excellence. It imparts sanctification. It makes those who receive it ‘a temple of your majesty’, it ‘endows with the dignity of king, priest and prophet’. In a word, it consecrates.
Healing, strengthening, consecrating.
Thinking of us who are priests, isn’t that a description of our mission? Of everything we are conscripted by the Lord and empowered by our ordination to do. This is the inner meaning of our ministry. Not to harm the people we are sent to, but to heal them. Not to weaken them, but to strengthen them. Not to desecrate them but to consecrate them. We do of course annoy and offend. We bore, depress and disappoint. But that comes from us qua us, and sometimes, frankly, from the false expectations of others. When John XXIII was under constant pressure to do this and that, he said, ‘I’m not Jesus Christ, I’m only the Pope.’ But the healing, the strengthening, and the consecrating come through us from beyond us. And so Bl. John Paul II was also right, when asking the question, what do people look for in a priest, to answer, Christ. These are the horns of the dilemma on which our ordination perches us for the whole of our priestly lives. Not Christ, but Christ.
Christ heals, strengthens and consecrates. He does so in innumerable ways, but one of them is through us, and it is through us, like it or not, that the Church is built up. Through our pastoral charity (as Vatican II called it), through the word, through the sacraments. Often just by our being there, being around, and lighting the candle of prayer day after day. The Eucharistic Body builds the Mystical Body, and it’s through our wills and our words that the first comes to be.
Healing, strengthening, consecrating. Forgiveness heals, the word of God and sound doctrine strengthen, the Holy Spirit consecrates. There is an order here, and each is linked to the other. And just as this Mass culminates in the consecration of chrism, so all we do as priests ultimately serves God’s purpose of consecration. People are not there for us to possess, or to notch up as spiritual trophies. They too spring, like the olive, from God’s creative hand. They too are being drawn each of them into the world of God, and it’s our part to help them yield to that drawing. Vatican II famously spoke of the universal vocation to holiness. It’s that our own vocation serves. It’s before that we disappear. There was something Pentecostal, many felt, to the Mass of Pope Francis’ Inauguration, And all the time there was the eloquent absence of Pope-Emeritus Benedict. ‘He must increase; I must decrease’ (Jn 3:30).
Here, Fathers, I want to make myself the spokesman of the laity here, and with them I want to thank you: for your ministry of healing, strengthening, consecrating. And I want to encourage you not to flag, not to underestimate the gift you have, to go on, more and more.
There’s a curious rubric at the end of the ritual for today:
‘In the sacristy, it is appropriate for the Bishop to instruct the Priests on the care and honour due to the sacred Oils and on diligently keeping them safe.’ This too can be read as an allegory. Before he uses the oil for others, the priest must care for it, honour it, keep it fresh and safe in himself, in the sacristy of his heart. That is, the grace of his ordination, the spirit and practice of prayer, the listening heart, the love of the brethren. Before we transmit the oil, we need to receive it, take it home. Before we can heal and strengthen and consecrate, we need the Lord to heal, strengthen and consecrate us.
And here I want to make myself the spokesman for all the clergy here, and say this to all of you in the body of the church. It has been a hard time recently, as we know, and one thing that has touched me, and touched other priests as well, I know, has been your loyalty, your care for us, your kindness. It is you, brothers and sisters, it is the Holy Spirit’s anointing of faith, hope and love living in you, which heals, strengthens and consecrates us. Thank you!