Words on the Word

Chrism Mass

Isaiah 61.1-9: He has sent me to proclaim a year of favour.
Revelation 1.5-8: He who is, who was, and is to come.
Luke 4.16-21: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.

The Chrism Mass stands for assembly and mission. Our clergy is gathered in the cathedral, a benediction and a joy to see. The bishop and the priests constitute a whole; we are meant to act as one in effective, selfless service. By renewing our priestly vows today, we confirm our unity. Our unity among ourselves presupposes our unity in Christ. The collect speaks of Christ’s anointing with the Spirit, then adds this intention: ‘Let us, made sharers in his consecration, bear witness in the world to redemption.’

My dear brothers and fathers: these words concern us especially. We have committed ourselves to live and die in Christ so that he, through us, may work freely in the world. We know what a liberating joy it is for a man to give himself freely, unconditionally. A dedicated life shows the measure a human life can reach. Today, with eyes fixed on the sacrifice Christ was anointed to make, we cast off compromises and distrust. We assemble our existence afresh within the grace and task of ordination, confident in God.

He has called us. He is faithful. He can bring his purpose to fulfilment (1. Thess 5.24).

As for today’s mission, it concerns ourselves, of course. We were ordained for the sake of others — and ordered to go to the ends of the earth. The commission given the apostles holds for us, too: we are sent on our way without money in our belt, with no purse, no spare tunics, no extra pair of shoes, no staff. Our priestly ministry does not spring from reliance on our own resources. Our trust is fully in God’s grace. The grace manifests itself as peace. Peace alone we are to carry in abundance, in sufficient measure to share it richly with all we meet.

In addition we go forth from this Mass bearing holy oils: the oil of the sick, comfort for the suffering and dying; the oil of catechumens, which drives out evil and prepares a way for the light; sacred chrism, given us to confirm and consecrate. All of us can recognise the truth of something Jon Fosse has said about his confirmation: ‘The seal marked on my forehead has done me nothing but good. When I really pay attention, I can feel, at any time, the imprint of the seal on my forehead. And it is good to know it is there.’

Through the oils, God’s grace reaches under our skin.

The oils trickle out to the outermost reaches of the prelature from our cathedral, our ecclesia matrix. This is itself an important sign. It speaks to us of belonging. It anchors us in an essentially biblical, salvation-historical pattern.

In Genesis we read that God at the beginning of creation caused a spring to rise up in Eden. It watered the garden there, to the delight of humankind. Then it divided into four rivers with wonderful names: Pishon, Gihon, Tigris, and Phrat. The rivers embraced the earth, and made it fruitful. Nature possesses intrinsic, irresistible potency; but this potency must be nurtured. Life comes from somewhere. Life has an origin, bestowed by God. It matters to remain connected to that point of origin. It matters to let life flow freely, without filling up the riverbed’s course with junk, without polluting the current. This is what the story of creation tells us.

The prophet Ezekiel picks up this story about nature and transposes it into another register, making of it a parable about grace. He, who languished miles from Jerusalem, weeping in Babylonian exile, was granted a vision of God’s sanctuary. Repeatedly God acts like this: he leads us out into estrangement to remind us what ‘home’ is about. In that way he calls us to conversion. The book of Ezekiel is a treatise about responsibility. It also reminds us that God’s faithfulness exceeds our infidelities. At the end of his vision, Ezekiel sees Jerusalem’s temple as a fount of living water. The water pours fourth from a holy spring. Wherever it flows, it carries blessing. Wonderful plants spring up: their fruit is for food, their leaves are for healing (47.12). There is hope for mankind, for the earth; but we must graciously receive life the way God gives it, not be seduced by self-sufficient illusions. This is the prophet’s proclamation.

The images of the fountains in Eden and Jerusalem, the promise of natural and supernatural life, are brought together in the final vision of the Bible, when John the Apostle glimpses the heavenly city rising out of the end of history. He sees the water of life flow clear as crystal from the throne of the Lamb. Wherever the water reaches, curses recede; flourishing ensues.

‘The time is near’ (22.10), we are told, when this vision will be realised. All is being made ready now.

Why do I remind you today of this Biblical pattern? Because today, in the world and in the Church, we are exposed to powers that cause division, that seek to cut us off from the source of life, deceiving us into thinking that we are sources ourselves. An atmosphere of suspicion spreads as rot. If we pay attention we see, here and there, the hoof-print of him whom Revelation refers to as ‘the accuser of the brethren’ (12.10). Let’s not fall for his tricks.

God’s promise reaches from the dawn of creation to the end of time. The fount of grace is vibrant and pure; it streams forth into the world through the Church. Over God’s holy Church the gates of hell have no power. The Church, of divine origin, towers supremely above all human insufficiency.

Let us, in this Mass, affirm our trust in God’s providence working through the Church, through the sacraments. Let us carry the oil of gladness out into the world with serenity and peace, undisturbed by forces that would wear down our confidence in God’s power to save. He is and remains our strength, our protection. Amen.


The source of the four rivers of paradise, from a manuscript dated to about the year 1100, now in the National Library of France, in Paris.