Mass of Chrism
St. Joseph's Basilica
March 21, 2016
Once again we have the joy of gathering as the local Church for the Mass of Chrism. As we do every year, we have heard tonight the familiar Gospel passage from St. Luke, in which Jesus proclaims himself to be the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy. In the power of the Spirit by which he has been anointed, he announces glad tidings. We gather as a people who have been anointed by that same Holy Spirit to share in the same mission of Jesus Christ and thus to be heralds, too, of good news. Clearly, the good news we share cannot be anything other than that proclaimed by Jesus; there can be no other glad tidings than those of his Gospel. The challenge facing us as disciples is that the unchanging and unchangeable good news of Jesus must be proclaimed in the midst of situations that are not always the same as history unfolds. Thus we need always to ponder how to make the Gospel of Jesus Christ intelligible for the people of today such that they find in it real reason for true hope.
Much can be said about the present situation in which we live. One of its most marked characteristics, it seems to me, is the prevalence of change. Things are in flux both physically and existentially, and this is giving rise to great hardship among the people. Around us the seemingly endless fluctuations of our economy give rise to present worry, and the prevalent call to move away from reliance upon fossil fuels engenders concern about the future. We know well the difficulties that such change and uncertainty is causing for many, many families. Geopolitically, the instability of governments is giving rise to heretofore unheard of numbers of displaced persons, whose everyday lives can only be described as a terrifying question mark. At the existential level, too, momentous change is shaking us profoundly. Law and society have presumed to change the definition of marriage; it is proposed that gender is not a given fact but something that can be self-determined and is thus fluid; and the legalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia demonstrates clearly that communal respect for the dignity of every human life is no longer the bedrock principle of unity among citizens. Change and instability abound.
Here we encounter one of the principal reasons for the anxiety and anger so prevalent in society today. The ground beneath us feels like nothing more than shifting sands, even quicksand, and there is seemingly nothing solid and secure to which we can cling for safety as we sink. This has many worrisome ramifications. The most troubling are its effects upon children, many of whom speak openly today about struggles with depression, even thoughts of suicide, and who choose to go to school early and stay late in order to avoid a home environment that is anything but secure.
In the midst of such debilitating change and flux, our proclamation of the Gospel must make clear the permanence and stability it announces. These are realities upon which we can rely; they dispel useless anxiety and ground real hope. Tonight such a message finds beautiful symbolic expression in the special oil after which this Mass takes its name: chrism. The various uses for which this sacred oil is reserved communicate permanence and thus convey hope.
For example, on Saturday I had the joy of dedicating the new altar and church of Corpus Christi parish. In the ceremony, the altar and the church walls are anointed with chrism. By this act of consecration, a permanent and unchanging dedication is brought about: the building for the worship of God and the altar for the sacramental renewal of Christ's sacrifice. Furthermore, the consecrated altar stands forth as a great and holy sign of Christ himself. Its solid nature and fixed position communicate permanence and thus evoke the steadfast fidelity of Christ to his promise always to be with his people. The same Jesus who once proclaimed his mission in the synagogue at Nazareth is now present in and with his Church, through which the glad tidings he came to announce long ago continue to reverberate in every age.
This gives rise to an urgent question. What about our own fidelity, our own permanent dedication to Christ? St. John in Revelation speaks of Jesus as "the faithful witness". By his own steadfast fidelity to mission, Jesus gave faithful witness to the unchanging - the permanent - love of the Father. Since by Baptism we are granted vital union with Christ, we, too, must live as faithful witnesses by remaining steadfastly loyal to the identity and mission entrusted to us. Christ's announcement of the glad tidings of God's permanent and faithful love echoes in the Church, precisely through the fidelity of his disciples. Yet, we know only too well our weaknesses. How then is fidelity possible?
Consider again the chrism. It is used in three sacraments that have a permanent effect such that they are never to be repeated: Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Orders. In these sacraments the Lord consecrates us, sets us permanently apart, for the mission of the Church, and what is more, he offers himself as the basis of our permanent fidelity to that call. By Baptism we are permanently united to Christ and made forever members of his Church, participants in the royal priesthood, and thus set apart for the praise of his glory. By Confirmation we are permanently sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit and indelibly commissioned to go forth in that Spirit to announce the Gospel. In Holy Orders, the recipient is so permanently configured to Christ that he henceforth acts in persona Christi capitis, empowered to teach, sanctify and govern in his name. Underneath and unifying all of these is the beautiful truth that God chooses and calls in accordance with his one unchanging purpose, and thus does not revoke his choice or rescind his summons. Furthermore, the seal of the Spirit given through the anointing with chrism is the condition of possibility for our permanent faithful response, since it bestows upon us a participation in Christ's own fidelity to his mission.
Permanence and fidelity form the necessary countersign to the change and instability wreaking much havoc today. Hope is found when we encounter the unchanging and steadfast love of God revealed in Jesus Christ. Among the many ways in which Jesus makes this divine love known is the ministry of the ordained priest. Tonight, as at every Chrism mass, I am surrounded by the priests who serve the faithful people of the Archdiocese. This Mass is the occasion to renew the promises made at ordination, a moment we welcome because the task entrusted to us draws its life from being regularly renewed in the Lord. Weakness and mistakes are not foreign to us. In serving others, we rely upon the grace and mercy of Christ, and so pray for a fresh outpouring of these gifts as we renew our pledge of fidelity. Prior to renewing your commitment to the Lord and his people, I would like to renew before you, Fathers, my expression of gratitude and esteem for your faithful ministry. Thank you for your good work, for your fraternal collaboration, and above all for the steadfast dedication by which you reflect to others the permanent presence and love of God. The people are blessed to have you as their priests.
Most Reverend Richard W. Smith
Archbishop of Edmonton
March 21, 2016