Should we make jokes about hell? Anyway, one is that in hell the British will be in charge of cooking, adding to the hellishness. Perhaps a prime example of our culinary ineptitude is our salads: a few dry lettuce leaves, some quartered tomato, perhaps a sliver of onion and some other detached green items. No oil!
Dr Johnson once said that everything good in our civilization has come from the shores of the Mediterranean. If so, I think we could list the olive tree and its oil: “this rich gift, this fruit of the earth”, as a prayer says: the oil of gladness, the oil that makes the face shine. Go by train through Russia and you can spend days passing through birch trees. Go through parts of southern Europe and you can meet field after field of olive trees, playing in the light, sturdy and gentle at the same time.
Tonight we bless oil and consecrate chrism (oil mixed with balsam) for the various sacramental anointings of the year ahead. Tonight we recall the spiritual anointing priests receive at their ordination. Tonight, we look at Jesus, invisibly anointed by the Holy Spirit, beginning his messianic mission: ‘The Spirit of the Lord has been given to me, for he has anointed me’. And we remember how, in turn, he ‘makes his whole mystical Body – us – a sharer in the anointing of the Spirit with which he has been anointed’ (Presbyterorum Ordinis 2). It’s all these interlaced anointings we want to recall and renew tonight and so refind our mission.
Oil runs through the Bible from Jacob’s anointing of the stone pillar (Gen 28) to the women who anointed our Lord’s feet (Lk 7; Jn 12), the Samaritan who poured oil and wine on the beaten man (Lk 10) and St James telling the presbyters of the Church to anoint the sick (James 5). There was the oil that anointed the furnishings of the Tent of Meeting and then Aaron and his sons, the priests; the oil poured out on the kings of Israel and the realization that prophets in turn were anointed people. There are texts we’re all familiar with:
‘You have prepared a banquet for me / in the sight of my foes. / My head you have anointed with oil; my cup is overflowing’ (Ps 22). ‘Therefore God, your God, has anointed you / with the oil of gladness above other kings; your robes are fragrant…’ (Ps 44). ‘How good and how pleasant it is,/ brothers dwelling in unity! / It is precious oil upon the head / running down upon the beard, / running down upon Aaron’s beard / upon the collar of his robes’ (Ps 132). ‘I have found David my servant / and with my holy oil anointed him. / My hand shall always be with him’ (Ps 88). ‘Wine to cheer man’s heart; / oil to make his face shine / and bread to strengthen man’s heart’ (Ps 103). These are poetic, evocative, suggestive texts. They find their further resonance in Christ and Christians. The word ‘Christ’ means Anointed, and so, which we say less often, does ‘Christian’. The anointing oil runs over our own lives. Europe has the Olive Line, north of which olive trees struggle, south of which they flourish. Christians, wherever they live physically, live spiritually south of the line: a heartening thought. Or, to evoke another kind of oil, whatever the state of the oil industry, the Church’s oil fields are never closed down. ‘It is God who establishes us with you in Christ and has anointed us, says St Paul, by putting his seal on us and giving us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee’ (2 Cor 1). And St John, who’s also speaking to all believers: ‘the anointing which you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you; as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true and no lie, just as it has taught you, abide in him’ (1 John 2).
The Old Testament anointings are all taken up in that of Jesus, and his in turn flows on to us. Our Chrism Mass shouts his aloud. Through the sacraments what runs through Scripture flows on to us. Every Christian is gloriously lubricated from baptism to his or her last anointing with the oil of the sick. Before baptism even, there is the anointing with the oil of catechumens, then sometimes immediately after a first chrismation, making us prophets, priests and kings. Then the Sacrament of Confirmation when the anointing with chrism is the sacramental sign itself, evoking Pentecost. At the ordination of a priest, his hands are anointed; at that of a bishop, his head. And in the anointing of the sick, the healing power of God touches the suffering and so, says the Catechism, ‘completes the holy anointings that mark the whole Christian life’ (CCC 1523). This without mentioning other less formal uses of anointing, and that of altars and churches. Yes, we live south of the Olive line. The Catholic salad is well-oiled. The anointing of Christ our Head runs down the beard of his people, to the hem of his garments, to all and each of us, to the whole Body and every member. ‘More than a prolongation of the Incarnation, says Fr Cantalamessa, the Church is the continuity of the Anointing in history’ (Come, Creator Spirit, p. 158). And always with multiple meanings, rich suggestions. Oil is versatile; it multi-tasks. The Catechism mentions abundance and joy, limbering up, healing, soothing, making radiant with beauty, health and strength (cf CCC 1293). Again, consecration, sealing, perfume, St Paul’s ‘aroma of Christ.’ Why not cast our net further? Doors and hinges can creak and grumble and complain, like us; try WD40. Machines or bicycles can grind horribly; oil them and all is smooth. Food can be indigestible; try Virgin Oil. ‘Check your oil’, as garages say.
Here we come to the point. All these uses, all these indications, oil as reality, oil as metaphor, evoke the Holy Spirit, the Oil of God. As St Irenaeus says, the Father anoints, the Son is anointed, and the anointing itself is the Holy Spirit. He makes us all, by our faith, baptism and confirmation, ‘a line of kings, priests to serve his God and Father’ and some of us also priests in the ministerial, ordained sense. He makes us all, and us priests too, capable of bringing the good news to the poor, liberty to captives and sight to the blind. He anoints us so we can anoint, and the mystical oil fill hearts and lives, flow in the world. Without the anointing of the Holy Spirit, our Christian life will be lack-lustre, a grind, unawakened possibilities, touching no-one. Similarly, our priesthood: function without unction, as Pope Francis said in his first Chrism Mass as Pope. He also once said to the Jesuits, surprisingly: ‘By nature, I am a pessimist. Therefore I always pray for consolation’. A good tip; it’s to pray for the oil of God. Recently too I heard an official of a Roman Congregation remark: ‘I have been in Rome long enough to have met every Bishops Conference in the world. The Westerners come in sad and burdened. Those from the poor countries or countries of persecution and hardship, come in radiant.’ The anointing again (or not). So let’s pray tonight for the renewal of Christian and priestly anointing. With it, sometimes at least, we can be on form, a touch inspired – if ordained – in our preaching, our celebrating, our pastoral care, or – if lay – in our parenting perhaps, in help to our neighbours, in use of time and talents. And all of us in our prayer. This is the grace of this Chrism Mass. This is the call and the vision: that all of us, lay, clergy, religious, each and all of us, bear one another’s burdens and further the mission of the Church, serve that ‘continuity of the Anointing in history’ which she is. That, sometimes at least, we channel to the world, souls, lives, often so dry, the oil of God that flows from the eternal Olive Tree of the glorified Christ. That something of cleansing, comforting, consecrating, of loosening up, lubricating, making fluent, happens around us, is part of our homes’ and parishes’ ecology. And should we, sometimes, find ourselves, the Church find herself, like our Lord in the Garden of Olives, thrown to the ground, pressed down, downed by difficulties, then let’s trust this is only for richer oil, refined and purified, to be released on the world.
Come, Holy Ghost, Creator, come… living spring, living fire, sweet unction and true love.
Mary, mother of the Church, pray for us,
Mary, mother of priests, pray for us,
Mary, anointed by the Holy Spirit, pray for us.
(St Mary’s Cathedral Aberdeen, 11 April 2019)