Oil overflows, spills, runs…
This is a very sacramental time of year. Today’s liturgy is a case in point. We recall the sacrament of Orders, bless the oils of Catechumens and the Sick and consecrate the Chrism. To quote the Pontifical: “Chrism is a sign that Christians, incorporated by Baptism into the Paschal Mystery of Christ, dying, buried and rising with him, are sharers in his kingly and prophetic Priesthood and that by Confirmation the spiritual anointing of the Spirit who is given them. The Oil of Catechumens extends the effects of the baptismal exorcisms: it strengthens the candidates with the power to renounce the devil and sin before they go to the font of life for rebirth. The Oil of the Sick, for the use of which St James bears witness, provides the sick with a remedy for both spiritual and bodily illness, so that they may have strength to bear up under evil and obtain pardon for their sins” (Order for the Blessing of Oils, Praenotanda 2). At the Offertory, a catechist will bring up the Oil of Catechumens, a nurse the Oil of the Sick and a deacon the Chrism.
Sacraments, like oil, spill over and run. They extend beyond themselves. When we are forgiven in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we are enabled to forgive others in turn. When we receive the Body of Christ we are changed into what we receive: the Eucharistic Body spills over into the Mystical Body. And the same holds, perhaps, for the sacrament we, deacons, priests and bishop(s), are remembering tonight. The Gospel itself suggests this. ‘Jesus came to Nazara, where he had been brought up.’ He goes into the synagogue he must have known so well as a youth. He stands up to read, a lector. He is handed the scroll of Isaiah by the gabbai, as the Jews call him, the MC. And he chooses the passage from Isaiah 61. It fits so well Jesus’ ‘ordination’, dare we say, at the canonical age of 30, by the River Jordan, which happened shortly before. And it fits ours. ‘The Spirit of the Lord has been given me…he has anointed me. He has sent me’. Three divine actions: giving, anointing, sending. To what end? To a five-fold end: to bring the good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and so on. Of the five phrases, it’s the fourth that struck me. Our translation reads: to set the downtrodden free. More literally: to send the downtrodden out in freedom. He has sent me to send. It’s the same verb: apostellein. Sacraments are like oil; they run over. Here’s the nub: I am sent to send. Here’s my priesthood, the gift and the mystery. I am anointed to anoint. I am ordained, placed in an order, in order to help others find their place. I am priested by this sacrament to help those priested by the sacrament of baptism. I am missioned to commission. I am apostled to raise up apostles. I am sent to send. So it was with Jesus: ‘as the Father sent me, so am I sending you.’ So it is for us. It’s good to remember this. Our prayer and our pastoral work can then acquire focus. We are not sent simply to ensure that the paperwork of everyone’s soul is in order. We are not sent merely to propagate a sense of all round feel-goodery. We can stop short at either of these, I think. Rather, we are sent to help those we serve uncover, discover, unfold and live out the personal vocation in the body of Christ and in society which they have been given, their gift, their anointing, their mission. Our own contribution may be indirect, transient, sometimes direct and lasting. It may be deft or clumsy. There can be tangles and complications, long roads a-winding, not to mention roadblocks. I’ve met people whose vocation seems to be not to have a vocation, at least in any conventional sense. In the end anyway, holiness is the thing, and folk are free, to put it mildly. And all of us are hidden in God. We are sometimes not needed at all. But still there is a place for us: we are sent to send. It is Christ, the Sent One, sending through us. Like Adam, I am placed in the garden of a parish, to till and care for it, to elicit the varied flora of God. I am called to name the unusual fauna that come our way. Like the father Jacob, we are to bless our children, one by one, by name, making a poem of their lives, declaring to them, as Genesis says, ‘what lies before [them]’, ‘giving to each one an appropriate blessing’ (Gen 49: 1, 28). The tilling and caring, the naming and blessing are all a sending. Before my own ordination, I can remember reading St John Paul’s Redemptor Hominis, fairly new then, and being struck by this. “For each and every one [in the Church] what is essential is a particular “vocation”. The Church as the People of God is also “Christ’s Mystical Body”. Membership in that body has for its source a particular call, united with the saving action of grace. Therefore, if we wish to keep in mind this community of the People of God, which is so vast and so extremely differentiated, we must see first and foremost Christ saying in a way to each member of the community: “Follow me”. [E]very initiative serves true renewal in the Church and helps to bring the authentic light that is Christ insofar as the initiative is based on adequate awareness of the individual Christian’s vocation and of responsibility for this singular, unique and unrepeatable grace by which each Christian in the community of the People of God builds up the Body of Christ. This principle, the key rule for the whole of Christian practice – apostolic and pastoral practice, practice of interior and of social life – must with due proportion be applied to the whole of humanity and to each human being” (RH 21). I found that uplifting and clarifying and still do. And there it is again in that passage of Isaiah, held together by those two uses of the word ‘sends’. Think of the Sacraments: we name the person when we baptize or confirm them. Holy Communion is not a free for all buffet; we give the Body to individuals. And General Absolution is only for emergencies. ‘Each one of you has received a special grace’, says Peter, for the service of others in the community (1 Pet 4:10). ‘Each one of us, says Paul, has been given his own share of grace, given as Christ allotted it’ (Eph 4:7). How privileged we are to see this and, sometimes, to serve it, name it, bless it. Sent to send.
This year’s Synod of Bishops is precisely on Young People, Faith and Vocational Discernment. One of the joys is meeting so many young people who have faith and are seeking a vocation. May we be willing to accompany them! May we help them glimpse the kindly light! And why just the young? And how our own sending is confirmed in turn! How much reciprocity, give and take, there is!
The encouragement of vocations. This year is the centenary of the 1918 Education Act (Scotland). Very good, but teachers are the need. Happily I have recently met two young women who want to be Primary School Teachers, and in the Catholic sector. There must be others. And by various people’s good offices, it is now possible for those doing their PGDE, not just in Glasgow University, but also in Strathclyde, Edinburgh and most recently Aberdeen, to complete their Catholic Teachers Certificate in those places. This is an opportunity.
Secondly, let’s not be afraid to recommend the priesthood and the permanent diaconate. An outside word can clarify an inner longing. And prayer has power. I know many parishes and communities have periods of Eucharistic Adoration. Experience suggests that this has the power to awaken vocations. It would be good if all our parishes could find time for this. But may I ask that when you do vocation to the priesthood and diaconate be the first intention? And what a good thing those parishes do which pray regularly and by name for our students. We are sent to send. Oil runs.
In a moment, all of us priests will renew the promises of our ordination. We do so very grateful to the lay people and religious we are privileged to serve. You send us too. Without you, we would wither on the vine. We’d be penniless and purposeless. Pray for us that we don’t muck up too much and that together we live the manifold, many-splendoured grace of God (cf 1 Pt 4:10). We are the Body of Christ in this place, this north of Scotland. Our Lord began his first homily with the poetry of Isaiah. Remembering Canon Bill, the Cardinal and one another, perhaps these lines of Rilke can help us offer ourselves in this Eucharist:
“I yearn to belong to something, to be contained
In an all-embracing mind that sees me
As a single thing.
I yearn to be held
in the great hands of your heart –
oh let them take me now.
Into them, I place these fragments, my life,
And you, my God, you have the right to spend me as you want.”
(Rainer Maria Rilke, The Book of Hours, II, 2)