Just a week ago we celebrated the Feast of the Annunciation; that moment when it was revealed to Mary that she was to be the Mother of God. The one who is pure spirit, took to himself a body and grew to birth in the womb of Mary. The one who was above all things, literally came down to earth.
Through his incarnation, Jesus makes sacred not just our humanity, but the very earth on which he walked and on which we now walk. From that moment when God entered human history, even the simplest things in nature seem to have the capacity to reflect the sacred. Joseph Mary Plunkett understood this and it is beautifully expressed in a poem which was recited for me last week by some of the children in the parish of Rathcormac and Maherow.
I see his blood upon the rose
And in the stars the glory of his eyes,
His body gleams amid eternal snows,
His tears fall from the skies.
Gerard Manly Hopkins, in his poem “God’s Grandeur” likewise celebrates how, as he says:
THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Today the focus is on oil, oozing from olives grown on the hillsides of Spain and Italy and Palestine. Olive trees are not particularly majestic. To be honest they are just large bushes, but they and their fruit are constantly presented to us in the Scriptures as symbols of the sacred. The olive branch is internationally recognised as a symbol of reconciliation and the peace which is ultimately God’s gift. In one of the Psalms, the beauty of God’s people living together in unity is described as being “like precious oil poured on the head”. It is easy to see how olive oil, with its soothing properties came to be associated with the gift of healing. Already in New Testament times, St. James tells us that, if anyone is sick, they should send for the elders, and they will pray over him and anoint him with oil.
From earliest times, Priests, Prophets and Kings were anointed with oil as a symbol of being consecrated for a special mission. Moses anointed his brother Aaron as priest and Samuel anointed David as King over Israel. Jesus himself is known as the Christ, the anointed one, entrusted with a mission by God himself. In our Gospel today, He uses the words of the Prophet Isaiah to describe his mission: “The Spirit of the Lord has been given to me, for he has anointed me”.
So, to get back to the point; something very simple and very ordinary and very much of the earth, has the capacity, through the working of God’s Spirit to become for us, a visible sign of God’s gifts of healing, protection and mission.
Today we bless the oil which will be used throughout the diocese during the coming year as we celebrate the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, Ordination and Anointing of the Sick. I particularly welcome here among us some of those who will be Baptised and Confirmed in these coming days and weeks. I welcome our priests who today will renew their commitment to mission as they repeat the promises of their ordination. I welcome also those who are sick and those who, in a particular way, dedicate themselves to the care of the sick in our hospitals and nursing homes.
When Jesus had finished reading in the Synagogue, he rolled up the scroll, handed it to the attendant and said, “today, these words are being fulfilled in your presence”. To those who listened to him, it meant that Jesus saw, in his own ministry, the fulfilment of the promise made eight hundred years previously by the prophet Isaiah. I want you to listen to those words again and to hear them spoken, not to people gathered in a synagogue in Nazareth, but spoken today to you. In what sense is the promise of Isaiah fulfilled “even as we listen”?
Let us focus for a moment on those who are sick or frail due to old age and who will, in the coming year be anointed with this Holy Oil. We believe that Jesus, who in his own lifetime loved the sick and cared for them, is alive among us and that, when we use this Holy Oil in his name, he continues to bring healing in body, mind and spirit. This is not some kind of magic; it is because the Spirit of Jesus is at work in the world. We need rituals such as this, because we are people of flesh and blood. We are blessed with a God who became flesh among us; a God who knows the meaning of touch and taste, hearing, sight and smell; a God who uses the things of the earth to bring us in to touch with the things of heaven..
But the Spirit is at work in other ways too, in the hearts and hands of those who believe in Jesus. In hospitals and nursing homes throughout the diocese, there are hundreds of people who dedicate their time and energy, day and night, to the care of those who are sick, doctors and nurses, catering staff, nursing assistants, paramedics and porters. On my visits to the elderly and the sick in parishes around the diocese, I find that many of them are cared for by family members and neighbours, on whom they depend, not just for practical care but also for the healing that comes from another human presence. Many of those who care for the sick are Baptised Christians, anointed with the oil of Chrism and entrusted with a mission to be Christ to others. We who have been baptised are Christ’s body. It is helpful if we can remember that our Baptism and, indeed our Confirmation were not just moments in time or events which happened to us. Through Baptism, we ourselves, small and insignificant as we sometimes appear, become visible signs of Christ. When we care for the sick, we do what He did. Not only that, but he works in us. Today, the words of Isaiah are fulfilled in our hearing. I invite you to let that reality sink in a little.
The Mass of Chrism is a unique moment in the calendar of the diocese because it is an opportunity for the priests who minister throughout the diocese to come together to renew the promises of their ordination. We take a moment to remember and give thanks for the laying on of hands and the anointing with oil, which took place in some Church or Cathedral here in the diocese or perhaps in Maynooth, in Rome or somewhere in Poland. We remember with gratitude the community through whose faith our faith was nourished. Like the olives form which the Chrism was made, we are very ordinary and very varied in our personalities and in our gifts. Yet we are called to share in the one priesthood of Christ, to be both individually and together the visible sign of His ministry to the people whom we serve. In this moment of renewal, we give thanks for the gift of our calling and we ask forgiveness if, in any way, through our frail humanity, we have fallen short. We believe that Christ who called us is with us through his Spirit and we renew our trust in him. The death this week of Monsignor Joe Jennings, a native of our diocese who spent 70 years ministering in the diocese of Mobile, Alabama, reminds me of the very many priests, native of our diocese, who have served and continue to serve the people of God in other parts of the world.
Since I came here to the diocese of Elphin, I have begun to know the priests in their humanity and in their ministry and, for some months now, I have had the opportunity to work alongside them. I want to take this opportunity today to acknowledge their hard work and dedicated service to God and to the people of the diocese. Coming here as a new bishop with my own human limitations, I could not have asked for better partners in mission. I know from my own experience as a priest how much we learn from and draw our energy from the people to whom we minister. Today, in a particular way, I want to thank the people of the diocese for the support and the encouragement which you give to your priests and I want to ask you please to continue to support us especially in your prayer. In so far as you value the ministry of the priest in your own community, please also keep in mind that it is in your community also that we must look for the priests of the future.
In so far as this Mass of Chrism places an emphasis on mission, I want to say a few brief words about the “Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and in the World”, even though there is no direct connection with the blessing of Holy Oils. It is in our families that we first learn to know God, because it is from our mothers and fathers that we learn the meaning of love, and service and sacrifice and forgiveness. As you know, there is a significant focus on the marriage and the family in the Church at the present time with the Synod of Bishops convening again in the Autumn. I simply wanted to acknowledge today that we received many responses from parishes, from religious communities, lay organisations and individuals to the recent consultation. These have now been collated by a small working group and have been returned to the episcopal conference secretariat, from where they will become part of a single response sent back to Rome in June to be part of the “food for thought” of those who will take part in the Synod. I am grateful to all who responded and I ask you all at this time to pray particularly for the married couples and families of our diocese, with all the many challenges they face and all the many gifts they bring.
Bishop of Elphin
1 April 2015