“Let us recognize our need of all the gifts of God that these holy oils signify.”
The following Homily was preached by the Bishop at each of the Ebbsfleet Chrism Masses 2014: Bristol Cathedral, 12 April; Birmingham Cathedral, 15 April, and St Peter’s Plymouth, 16 April
Dear Brothers and Sisters, today I have the joy of celebrating my first Chrism Mass as Bishop of Ebbsfleet. I welcome you all with love and gratitude, and especially my dear brother priests with whom, today, I also recall the day of my ordination. Just as for our brothers and sisters in the Diocese in Europe, much of our Ebbsfleet life is often hidden from each other’s view. But today we have the great joy of seeing those ties of mutual love visibly drawn together in this Eucharist, and as for any bishop the experience in humbling.
Holy Week is the very core of the memory and identity of Christians. In one way, as the Carthusians say, ‘The cross stands fixed while the world turns’: it is the great immovable sign of Christ’s Passover from death to life. But from another view Holy Week is the point at which all the lines of Christian memory and identity intersect, connect, and multiply. Whichever way you come at it, we are celebrating the events that make Christians who we are. The Lord’s Passover is not just a postmodern story that we have chosen to tell about ourselves, so that we have clear branding in the market place. These are real events: events that quite literally change our identity, and set our feet down in Christ’s shoes in Christ’s kingdom.
And among the other great liturgies of this week, this Mass is no poor relation. It has roots deep in the memories and habits of the early church. Time only allows for me to draw out one strand: but it is one that I believe we need to hear.
All three oils are signs of the Holy Spirit’s presence. Olive oil, which is a kind of distillation of the radiance of the sun, becomes on our bodies a sign of the inner transforming radiance of the Holy Spirit. This is what took place in its fullest way in Jesus. When we refer to him as Christ—the Anointed One—it is because his humanity was saturated by the power of the Holy Spirit. And because of him all human life has been opened up to the possibility of the same anointing and communion in the Spirit. The more we are united to Christ, the more we are filled with his Holy Spirit.
That is the meaning of being called Christians, “anointed ones”, people who because they belong to Christ share in his Spirit. Perhaps that brings to mind the truth of the words of St Seraphim of Sarov (who you’ll hear a lot about if you stick with me as your Bishop): “The true goal of our Christian life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God.”
This is where these oils come in. They are all used in connection with the entry of the Holy Spirit into our lives to make us Christian. Two of the oils (the ones for anointing the sick and for anointing people preparing for baptism) are far closer in meaning than you might first think. They are both concerned with forgiveness and healing, which in the gospels are deeply interconnected.
When we look in the gospels it becomes clear that Jesus’s healing miracles bring to an end the bodily sickness of an individual so that that person’s alienation from the community, from God’s people, can also be ended. Jesus’s main purpose in healing a person was to restore them to the community, to end their estrangement and loneliness, and to give back their proper dignity in the fellowship of the community. That is why so many of the healing stories in the gospels involve a person being declared ‘clean’ by the priests of the community. Jesus’s touch not only healed sickness, it healed the wound of alienation too, and gave people new access to sharing in the identity of the chosen people.
Perhaps that helps us to see the oil of catechumens in a rather similar light. It too is associated with the reconciliation of individuals, with being forgiven and healed of the sickness and loneliness of sin, and drawn into the community of Jesus Christ. It is a sign that the Holy Spirit has entered them, to guide and motivate them toward their baptism, in anticipation of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at confirmation which gives entry into the communion of saints, the Eucharist. As the late great Fr McCabe said, “We share a divine food because we share a divine friendship.” [New Creation, p.65]
And this is not only about new Christians. The same theme of forgiveness and return also emerges in another way. Holy Thursday was not only the day on which the oils were normally blessed, but was also the day on which baptized individuals who had been alienated from the Church for some reason, and had demonstrated their penitence throughout Lent, were publicly reconciled with the Church, ready to share fully in the celebrations of Easter.
So: an end of sickness, an end of sin, an end of alienation; an embrace of the Lord, a renewed desire to be Christ’s disciple, a reconciliation with the communion of saints. All these themes are connected with these two oils. And both find their goal in that special oil, the Chrism, which is the sign above all of the Holy Spirit enabling human beings to live the life of Jesus: a life in this world but with its source in communion with God.
Brothers and sisters, we have to recognize our own poverty and infidelity, and our need of all those things that the holy oils signify. Let us confess our sense of loneliness and fear of greater isolation from the Church catholic, and seek the consolation of the Holy Spirit. Let us affirm our desire to live our life in as full as possible a relation to catholic fellowship. Let us acknowledge our need of the strength and common mind that comes from closer fellowship to one another in the body of Christ. Let us put aside a temptation to nurse our wounds, and let us admit our need of Christ’s touch, of the Spirit’s healing, of the restoration to joy. It is a touch and a healing that we shall need even more in the coming months if our Church takes further decisions which we believe to be in contradiction to the express will of God for his Church and subversive of its true nature. (cf Abp of Canterbury in Synod, Nov 2012) Many of our brothers and sisters in the CofE, the Anglican Communion, or wider still, don’t understand or necessarily accept that our commitment to the received sacramental order of the Church is a matter of obedience to the Lord’s authority and to the consensus of the Church’s tradition. But many do: it commands their respect; and they desire our continued presence precisely in the Church where the Lord has put us and continues to feed us. Together with them—and despite the painful sacramental contradictions—we shall need to promote ways of living in the closest, fullest, highest degree of connection and relationship, because we are all beggars in need of the gifts of the Spirit that can only be experienced in unity.
I cannot end without a word direct to the priests and deacons who in a moment, before we bless the new oils, will renew their promises of service and sacrifice. Brothers, and sisters in the diaconate! We have been given authority to go out and to find people to bless and to heal and to reconcile. These oils are being consecrated for use in ministry in our communities. The people of God, and the people seeking God, are their aim and purpose, because they are the ones in whom the Spirit of Jesus thirsts to dwell. They are the people we are to be blessing and healing and reconciling. They are the ones who seek the word of the Lord, and the sacramental food for which they depend upon us. They are the ones who need our encouragement and teaching, our challenge and support to live in the world as contemplatives and evangelists and missionaries.
But, my dear brothers, do not neglect either, to minister to one another: to pour oil into one another’s wounds, and bind them up; to be the agents of one another’s reconciliation with the Church, softening and easing any sense in each other of tiredness, fear, or cynicism about the future. Let Jesus’s touch start with you: and do not be afraid to receive it from others, or to minister it to other clergy in our church – those who feel sympathetic towards us, and those who don’t. There will be no time or place or encounter or service in which we will not need to ask God for the special gift of faithfulness which we call courage. Ask the Lord daily for it, and share it with one another.
Enough of talking. As we bless these oils, let us remember that we are preparing ourselves for the mission of the Church.
© Jonathan Goodall, 2014