Mass of Chrism 2023
[Isaiah 61:1-3, 6, 8-9; Psalm 89; Revelation 1:5-8; Luke 4:16-21]
At the outset of this homily, I would like to express once again the joy I feel that we are able to gather in person for this Mass of Chrism. Conditions prevailing in the past few years have kept us physically apart. I thank God, then, that we are able to gather in person as we should – lay faithful, consecrated women and men, and clergy together – to experience and celebrate our unity as disciples of Jesus Christ.
By bringing all members of the local Church together, the Mass of Chrism is an opportunity to ponder this unity and pray for its strengthening. I want to underscore this tonight, because, even though physical distancing no longer separates us, there remain challenges to unity at another, deeper level. With sadness, we are seeing how the polarization infecting society at times seeps into the Church, manifesting itself in tension and fracture, which in turn weaken our common witness to the Gospel. I have heard many times how this is leaving people disheartened and anxious. So tonight, I invite us all to bring this situation to the Word of God. There we shall find clear direction for the restoration and maintenance of deep and abiding unity among God’s holy and priestly people. It offers a message that, if heeded, will dispel our anxiety and renew us in hope.
The biblical directive is simple: we are to keep our gaze riveted on the Lord Jesus Christ. If we adhere to his person and remain humbly attentive to his Word, Jesus will lead us back to one another as faithful disciples and forward into the world as joyful witnesses. This assurance arises from careful reflection upon both the scriptural texts and this liturgy itself.
In the familiar passage from Saint Luke, we are told that everyone gathered in the synagogue had their eyes fixed on Jesus as they listened to him speak. Implicit here is an invitation for us to do the same as we gather in this Basilica. The people of ancient Nazareth heard Jesus speak of his identity by applying to himself the prophecy of Isaiah. As we direct our attention toward Jesus and attend to his Word, we have revealed to us the deepest mystery of his identity, which at once fulfils and transcends all prophecy. In the text from the Book of Revelation, Saint John speaks of Jesus as the “Faithful Witness,” and the Lord speaks of himself as “the Alpha and the Omega, … who is, who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.” We do well to linger on this for a moment and ponder its implications for the unity of the Church.
As the “Faithful Witness”, Jesus handed on to the world what he had received from the Father. He is, in himself, God’s perfect and sufficient self-revelation. As “Alpha and Omega”, Jesus is Sovereign Lord of history, the one to whom all time belongs. From contemplation of these two dimensions of the mystery of Jesus Christ there emerges an important question: the relation between Revelation and history. I want to highlight this because we have here – in the way this question is answered – the key to understanding what is at work within many of the forces that today weaken the unity of the Church. When Scripture announces that Jesus is both Word of the Father and Lord of time, it proclaims that Revelation stands over history. All that unfolds in time is to be assessed and judged in the light of God’s holy Word. Yet what is often operative is the presumption that history stands in judgment of Revelation. We see this at play whenever it is claimed that the words of Christ and the witness of Sacred Scripture can be assessed, critiqued, and even changed in the light of human desire, scientific achievement, or philosophical speculation. This is, in effect, to take our eyes off of Christ and fix them instead upon our own will and logic. This cannot but lead to the Church’s sundering, the threat of which is only too real right now in certain corners of the global Church. Yet, the Scriptures are clear: only steady contemplation of Jesus Christ, with a humble readiness to obey his Word, is the source and mainstay of the unity of God’s People. The call here is to re-direct our gaze away from ourselves – from our own will and desires – and fix it firmly on Jesus Christ and thus remain united.
The way we live out that unity features beautifully in our liturgy this evening. Here I have particularly in mind the consecration of chrism. Through the sacramental anointing with this sacred oil in Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders, recipients receive special outpourings of the Holy Spirit, which the Gospel tells us Jesus possessed in fullness for the sake of his mission. The consecration of chrism tonight thus reminds us all that, by God’s choice and action, we have been fashioned and gifted for permanent participation in that same mission of Jesus Christ. This means that our lives are no longer our own; we belong to him. Our unity, which has its sacramental ground in Baptism, is maintained and deepened as, by God’s grace, we live in keeping with our Christian dignity, remain faithful to sacred duty, and surrender ourselves entirely to service of the Gospel.
So, in the face of the many challenges to our united Gospel witness, we have reason to hope. Since God’s Word calls us to keep our eyes fixed always on the Lord Jesus, listen to and heed his every word, and remain faithful to the part we are called to play in his mission, we know that God will fill us with the grace to do so and thus heal our divisions and strengthen our communion.
Allow me to conclude with a word to our priests. I do so because, in the context of the Mass of Chrism, priests renew before their Bishop the sacred promises first made at ordination. Fathers, to a great degree the unity of the Church depends upon that which we share in virtue of our common sacramental bond. Our unity must be both affective and effective as together we strive to fulfill the particular mission to Word and sacrament entrusted to us by the Lord. From my perspective, I believe our unity is strong. For this we need to thank God and ask that it grow ever deeper. I am immensely grateful to you for your faithful and effective collaboration. In the very difficult and challenging last few years, we have, more than once, shared with each other the perplexities, anxieties, and fatigue with which we have had personally to grapple, along with those of the people we serve. Thank you for your steadfast dedication to the priestly ministry. Please be assured, too, of the gratitude and support of the people in your care. As you now renew your promises, let us pray together for the grace to remain faithful to our unique and irreplaceable participation in the saving mission of Jesus Christ.
Most Reverend Richard W. Smith
Saint Joseph Basilica
April 3rd, 2023