It sometimes seems that we are living in a time of massive upheaval such as the world has never seen before. In the eighth century BC, when Isaiah was a prophet in Jerusalem, the whole region was in turmoil. The Assyrian empire was in control and the people of Israel were sent into captivity in Babylon. Syria, Iraq, Israel; little seems to change. The passage that we have in our first reading this evening is about the end of the exile and the hope that comes with a new beginning.
As you probably noticed, if you were listening carefully to the Gospel, these words of Isaiah are the words that Jesus read to the people in the Synagogue, in his home town of Nazareth. Isaiah and Jesus, each in his own way, is aware of having been entrusted with a mission. That is the meaning of being anointed. Like Isaiah, Jesus proclaims that, in spite of all the negativity going around, the Spirit of God is at work in the world. God is about to do something new; something beyond all expectation.
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,
In the case of Isaiah it is not just the end of a physical exile, it is a healing of relationship with God, a spiritual liberation and a cultural renewal. In the case of Jesus, it is all of that, but even more wonderful still: an end to the power of sin and death; the gift of new and everlasting life.
This evening, once again, the words of Isaiah are spoken in this community and, in this ancient ritual of the blessing of oil, we are reminded that here, now, in this time and place, we are the ones to whom the Spirit has been given, we are the ones who are anointed. Like Isaiah and like Jesus, we are called to bear witness to the fact that, in spite of all the chaos in the world around us, the Spirit is at work. He is at work in us.
The oil of Catechumens is a symbol of the strength that comes from God; strength to resist everything that is evil and destructive and to choose what is good. Those who have been preparing for Baptism have been anointed with that holy oil to strengthen them on their journey toward Baptism; a journey that, of course, continues in the life of the Baptised.
The oil of Chrism, a mixture a olive oil and balsam is the ancient symbol of mission, with which priests, prophets and kings were anointed, right back to the time of the prophet Samuel and the first Kings of Israel, Saul and David. It conveys a sense of the sacred, as well as having authority to lead and to serve. While chrism is used in the sacraments of Confirmation and Ordination, we first come across it in the sacrament of Baptism. There is no escaping the fact, therefore, that Baptism is for mission. Each infant, each child and each adult who will be anointed with this holy oil on Holy Saturday or during the coming year, is called to become, in the words of Pope Francis, a missionary disciple. That call is renewed in the Sacrament of Confirmation, when God confirms that we are His beloved sons and daughters and we confirm our decision to be disciples. I am very happy, this evening, to welcome the young people from around the diocese who will be confirmed during the coming weeks, as well as those who will be confirmed at the Easter vigil.
I also want to welcome all the priests who are gathered here this evening. During Holy Week, we focus on the sacrifice of Jesus; his gift of himself offered for us in the Eucharist and on the cross. We are called to act in the person of Christ, in offering that same sacrifice for the people whom we are called to serve. We exercise our ministry in a very different world from the world in which many of us were ordained. The pace of change can be disconcerting. The challenge is to find a way to echo the words spoken by Jesus and by Isaiah before him, in a very different space, confident that the Spirit of Jesus is at work here too.
During the rite of ordination, the bishop addresses the candidate as follows:
“Your ministry will perfect the spiritual sacrifice of the faithful by uniting it with Christ’s sacrifice, the sacrifice which is offered sacramentally through your hands. Know what you are doing and imitate the mystery you celebrate“.
We can only offer the Eucharist with integrity if we live the reality of sacrifice and service in our lives. I want to acknowledge the very generous service that our priests give all over the diocese of Elphin. Much of it is discreet and behind the scenes. It is appropriate that, this week of all weeks, we publicly renew our commitment and ask the prayers of God’s people to support us in our ministry. I welcome especially those priests who, though they are unable to be present due to old age or ill health, may be joining us this evening online via webcam and I invite them to join us in renewing their commitment. We will take a moment during the Eucharistic Prayer to remember among our dead Fr Seamus Cox and Fr John Leogue who died during the past year.
I take this opportunity also to remind everybody here of the words of Pope St John Paul II in his encyclical letter “Ecclesia de Eucharistia”. He said:
“The assembly gathered together for the celebration of the Eucharist, if it is to be a truly Eucharistic assembly, absolutely requires the presence of an ordained priest as its president. On the other hand, the community is by itself incapable of providing an ordained minister. This minister is a gift which the assembly receives through episcopal succession going back to the Apostles.”
So we need, all of us, to pray for that gift and at the same time to extend that invitation in a personal way, as Jesus himself did it, remembering that unless we have priests, we will not have the Eucharist.
Finally, I want to return once again to the holy oils. The third blessing this evening will be the blessing of the oil for the anointing of the sick. The tradition of anointing the sick with oil builds on the natural properties of oil to bring healing and relief from pain. We believe that Jesus who healed the sick during his ministry on earth is alive among us and still wishes to be with those who are frail or in pain due to sickness or old age. I honestly believe, however, that this anointing of the sick, like every other anointing, is also about mission.
Just after the anointing, the priest prays:
God of mercy,
look kindly on your servant who has grown weak
under the burden of years.
In this holy anointing
she asks for healing in body and soul.
Fill her with the strength of your Holy Spirit.
Keep her firm in faith and serene in hope,
so that she may give us all an example of patience
and joyfully witness to the power of your love.
It is not easy to be cheerful or patient when the body is full of aches and pains. Yet, as I go around the diocese, I constantly meet people who are sick or frail due to old age, but who truly are joyful witnesses. Many of them, who are unable to leave their beds or to venture beyond their own hall door, spend hours in prayer, not just for themselves, but for the Church and for the world. In this way, they truly exercise their mission, strengthened by the spirit which they too have received.
+ Kevin Doran, Bishop of Elphin