Homily for Chrism Mass

‘The Spirit of the Lord has been given to me, for he has anointed me’ (Is 61:1; Lk 4:18).  The parish of Buckie is known for its music. And it’s hard not to think of this Isaian line in musical terms. First, we hear it from the prophet himself, like a flute solo. Then in the synagogue of Nazareth, it’s taken up by Jesus, the Anointed One par excellence – a violin? a trumpet? Then suddenly, since Pentecost, the melody belongs to the vast orchestra of believers. Thanks to the chrism given to the baptised after their Baptism and / or in Confirmation, it fills the whole earth. All of us, as baptised and confirmed Christians, have been given the Spirit of the Lord and been anointed, given a share in the mission of Christ, prophet, priest and king. ‘The Spirit of the Lord has been given to me, for he has anointed me.’ But then, in the midst of this orchestra (clutching their oboes or trombones or saxophones), there rise to their feet all those ordained to the ministries of deacon, priest or bishop, playing the same theme. It’s theirs as well, in a unique and yet connected sense: the music given them to keep alive in others.

On all the ordained successors of the apostles lay their hands, and God the Father is asked for the gift of the Spirit. It’s the Holy Spirit and the ‘gift of your sevenfold grace’ in the case of deacons, ‘the governing Spirit whom you gave to your beloved Son, Jesus Christ’ for a bishop. For a priest the prayer is: ‘Almighty Father, grant to this servant of yours the dignity of the priesthood. Renew within him the Spirit of holiness.’ It’s priests we think of especially tonight. It’s priests we pray for especially. So, what better prayer than that: ‘Renew within him the Spirit of holiness’?

The translation is a little coy, over-modest. In Latin it goes: innova in visceribus eius Spiritum sanctitatis. Renew the Spirit of holiness not just ‘within him’, but in his viscera – in his insides, almost, dare we say, his intestines, his entrails. I’ll come back to those in a minute. But first, we catch the echo of the great Psalm of repentance, Ps 50 or 51, the Miserere. This is the Psalm the Divine Office presents relentlessly at Morning Prayer every Friday, and in the Benedictine Office every day. ‘Have mercy on me, O God, in your kindness. In your compassion blot out my offence.’ At the heart of the Psalm is a three-fold prayer for the Spirit, that God will give his Spirit back to the repentant sinner, seal the forgiveness of David’s sin with this gift:

‘A pure heart create for me, O God, put a steadfast spirit within me (et spiritum firmum innova in visceribus meis). Do not cast me away from your presence [face], nor deprive me of your holy Spirit. Give me again the joy of your help; with a spirit of fervour sustain me’ (Ps 50/51:12-14).

The home of our priesthood is a repentant heart. How can we call others to repent if we don’t repent ourselves? How can we call others to sacramental reconciliation if we do not seek it ourselves? ‘Grant that we may put aside our apathy,’ goes one of the intercessions of the Office; ‘help us to recognise with joy the power you have given us’ – that is, ‘the spirit of power and love and self-control’ (2 Tim 1:8).

But back to the viscera. For the ancients there were seven of these: the stomach, the heart, the lungs, the spleen, the liver and the two kidneys. It is there the emotions live. It is there that fathers and mother, for example, suffer and feel for their children. And it is there that the Father is being asked to send the Spirit of holiness. Let this man not be a dry old stick, burned out, withered, or cold and hard and angry! Renew the Spirit of holiness – in his guts, in his insides, in his heart, his affectivity, his emotions, feelings, desires. The Spirit of holiness is inside or nowhere. Priesthood is in our insides, in our hearts, or it’s nowhere. Often indeed what springs up from our viscera must be mortified, crucified, is incompatible with human decency or Christian virtue or the demands of celibacy. We must be lucid here. ‘The saving Cross crucifies in saving’, as Newman pithily put it. But the Spirit of holiness doesn’t stop with slaying what is unholy. He also raises from the dead. ‘Renew the Spirit of holiness in his viscera’. It is the consecration and sending of our whole human nature that’s being prayed for here: every emotional and psychic energy turned to the salvation of others. Oil-like, the Holy Spirit can work his way inside, penetrate, permeate, soften, make supple, get our insides turning and moving again. St Paul spoke of loving his people ‘in visceribus Christi’. ‘For God is my witness,’ he told the Philippians, ‘how I long for you all in the viscera of Christ’ (1:8). There’s the heart of it. ‘Renew the Spirit of holiness in our viscera’. May our insides become like those of Jesus the Anointed One! Nine times in the Gospels, Jesus’ splanchna – the Greek equivalent of viscera – are moved. Nine times he has this visceral feeling of compassion, and almost always a miracle of healing follows.

‘We must love our priesthood from the bottom of our heart, as a great “social sacrament”’, said Bl. John Paul II. ‘We must love it as the essence of our life and of our vocation, as the basis of our Christian and human identity.’

For von Balthasar, the priestly office is transparency to the love of Christ for the Church. It has no other function than to represent this love of Christ. And so, he says, the essential hermeneutic of priestly office is the question put to Peter, ‘Do you love me, Peter?’ ‘Feed my sheep.’

So, may the Lord renew the Spirit of holiness even there, especially there – in our viscera. May we be anointed even that far, like Mary at the Annunciation. May our own longing to love and to be loved – the most visceral thing that we have – be sanctified by the Spirit, be purified and Christ-ified and become a life-, light-giving force for others, and not, ever, the opposite.

Everything then will follow and flow. ‘He has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up hearts that are broken; to proclaim liberty to captives, freedom to those in prison; to proclaim a year of favour from the Lord, a day of vengeance for our God; to comfort all those who mourn and to give them for ashes a garland; for mourning robe the oil of gladness, for despondency, praise’ (Is 61:1-3).

Innova in visceribus nostris Spiritum sanctitatis!

Let me do what Canon Bill Anderson might do, and end with something from a poet, one of our own time and diocese, the late George Mackay Brown. It’s from a Song for St Magnus – 16 April, written in 1993.

The night before he was murdered, Magnus made a vigil in the church in Egilsay. At dawn the priest came in, and lit the candles for Mass – the paschal candle too. So the poet, now, asks the prayers of St Magnus:

‘Magnus, pray for priests
In this time of hate
(Never such hate and anger over the earth)

May they light candles at their altars,
This day and all days,
Till history is steeped in light.’

Chrism Mass
St Peter’s, Buckie
29 March 2012


RC Diocese of Aberdeen Charitable Trust.
A registered Scottish Charity Number SC005122