It’s a happy chance that our Chrism Mass this year follows on from yesterday’s solemnity, the Annunciation. Ideally, the Chrism Mass is kept on the morning of Maundy Thursday – set in the Upper Room, poised on the brink of the Paschal Triduum, turned to the Passover of Christ. Even when we keep it earlier (as we do), it keeps this inner setting. But, this year, we may look backwards too, to the Incarnation of Christ and find our priesthood there as well.
How smoothly today’s Gospel follows on from yesterday’s (Lk 1:26-38)! Both are from St Luke. Both are set in Nazareth. Both are beginnings. Both show Jesus under the sway of the Holy Spirit. Yesterday, the angel of the Lord brought tidings to Mary and she conceived by the Holy Spirit. Yesterday the Word was made flesh and came to dwell among us. Today that Word made flesh, is a grown man, freshly washed in the Jordan. He is reading out Isaiah in the synagogue, perhaps with his mother listening. ‘The Spirit of the Lord has been given to me, for he has anointed me. He has sent me to bring the good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives and to the blind new sight, to set the downtrodden free, to proclaim the Lord’s year of favour’ (Is 61:1-2).
The two Gospels connect. And they help us connect our priesthood to the mysteries of the faith and the history of salvation. Scripture and the Liturgy and the words and deeds of Christ: these things are our primary ambience. We have the human experience of loneliness and it has its own grace. But the other side of it lie so many connections.
The Holy Spirit was the agent of the union of humanity and divinity in the womb of Mary of Nazareth. The Holy Spirit was the mover of the God-man’s mission that began in the synagogue of Nazareth. The Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary and anointed Jesus. He is the one whom the Father, by way of the Spirit, has consecrated and sent into the world (cf. Jn 10:36). And today’s Collect calls us ‘sharers in his consecration’. This comes to us by the laying on of hands and a prayer of epiclesis: ‘Grant we pray, almighty God, to these your servants the dignity of the Priesthood; renew deep within them – in their viscera – the Spirit of holiness.’ Priesthood is ‘unction, not function’, as Pope Francis memorably puts it. And so, thanks to the overshadowing and anointing of the Holy Spirit in Ordination, we share in the being and mission of Christ. And his incarnation and ministry – the two mysteries of the two Gospels – play out by way of us. They live on in the world by way of us. ‘This “ordination” is one of the most astonishing proofs of the Lord’s fidelity; it means that despite the failings of his envoys, he will never deprive his Church of the gifts of his Spirit, “Whether Peter or Judas do the baptizing, it is Christ who baptizes.” The Spirit will always act with power in the sacraments, through the “vessels of clay”, that is, the ordained ministers of Christ…in these weak human beings it is Christ himself who is the servant of his Church to the point of being everything in it’ (Jean Corbon, The Wellspring of Worship, pp. 176-177). ‘He must increase, but I must decrease’ (Jn 3:30).
‘And behold, Boaz came from Bethlehem; and he said to the reapers, “The Lord be with you!” And they answered, “The Lord bless you.”’ (Ruth 2:4). Priesthood has its own symbolism. It’s something expressed and glimpsed and felt and experienced in disparate signs and words and gestures. Hence its cinematic and novelistic appeal, I suppose. And here is one such symbol: ‘The Lord be with you.’ Boaz, an ancestor of Christ, comes from Bethlehem (appropriately), and he says, ‘The Lord be with you.’ He’s the first to do so. And in continuity with the Christ who comes from Bethlehem we often say, ‘The Lord be with you.’ Anyone believer can say that, of course, but we are anointed to say it. We say it often, in many liturgical contexts. We say it four times in every Mass: at the beginning, before the Gospel, at the start of the Eucharistic Prayer, before the final blessing. And four times we hear the response ‘and with your spirit’, an affirmation of the ‘spirit’ received in ordination. Four times priest and people connect in this way. (We know how deadly it is when there’s no response!). And every time our bond with the Church is renewed, and our own priesthood is confirmed. But what a simple, telling symbol our whole mission has in those five words: ‘the Lord be with you’! Silver and gold I have none, but what I have I give you. The brevity is eloquent. Some of us can be loquacious, at the ambo or elsewhere. But objectively, as priests, we’re men of few words. We know very little, really. We don’t always have answers. There are many competences and expertises we lack. Often it’s best to be silent and pray. But the few words we have, the five pebbles in our sling, are precious and powerful: ‘This is my Body’, ‘I absolve you’, ‘May the Lord in his mercy heal you and raise you up’, and the rest. And, not least, ‘the Lord be with you.’ How many biblical resonances those five words carry! How much reassurance! How they span the Gospel, from the angel’s ‘the Lord is with you’ to ‘Lo, I am with you always to the close of the age’! Ultimately, the whole of revelation is there: Emmanuel. And they are what people long to hear. I know because I get the letters from the parishes that fear being priestless! What people want to know is that the Lord is with them – and that, precisely, is our song. If we could be Dominus vobiscum on two legs, our priesthood would be fulfilled.
‘And Boaz came from Bethlehem and said, ‘The Lord be with you!’
I think that’s enough. Except as bishop to say thank you to each and all of you as priests – on my behalf and on behalf of the faithful. And as an echo of the thanks of Someone Greater than us all. Tonight, as priests, we put ourselves again into Christ’s hands. In the Upper Room, he took bread and the cup in his hands, and he gave thanks. May he take all of us now, not mouldy bread or sour wine, but our simple selves; not just worn-out and angry, but longing to be fascinated (a phrase of St Therese). May he be full of thanks to the Father for what he holds here tonight and fill us again with his Spirit for the comfort of souls! Amen.
St Thomas’, Keith