Your Excellency, Your Grace, my Lord Bishops,
Dear Rev. Fathers, Brothers and Sisters
and beloved brethren in Christ,
In the book of Exodus God, tells Moses: “take the choicest spices: of liquid Myrrh five hundred shekels, half this weight of fragrant cinnamon – that is two hundred and fifty shekels – and of scented cane two hundred and fifty shekels; of cassia five hundred shekels and one hin of olive oil. These you are to compound into a Holy Chrism, such a blend as the perfumer might make: it is to be a holy Chrism. With it you are to anoint the tent of meeting and the ark of the testimony, the table and all its furnishings, the lamp stand and all its accessories the altar of incense, the altar of holocaust with all its furnishings and the basin with its stand. These you are to consecrate. Thus they will excel in holiness and whatever touches them will be holy. You must also anoint Aaron and his sons and consecrate them so that they may be priests in my service. Then you are to say this to the sons of Israel; You must hold this Chrism holy from generation to generation…..It is a holy thing, you must consider it holy” [Ex. 30: 22-30].
And so, as the words of the Lord indicated oil was then to be used, as it was commonly the case, with the ancient cultures of Egypt and Mesopotamia, not just as a bodily conditioner, fragrance or as a medicinal unguent, but as a sign of special consecration or sanctification. The Hebrew verb used is Kedash which means “to make belong to God” and is applied to time, space, persons and things. Whatever is anointed, for which the Hebrew word Meshah is used, does not belong to itself or to any other, anymore, but to God alone. The accounts of the anointing of Aaron and his sons [Ex. 28-29] show this special belonging most vividly. The words of the Biblical text are awesome: “for the sons of Aaron you are to make a tunic and girdle and head dress to give dignity and magnificence. You will put these on your brother Aaron and his sons. You will then anoint and invest and consecrate them to serve me in the priesthood….. Aaron and his sons must wear these when they go into the tent of meeting and when they approach the altar to serve in the sanctuary as a precaution against incurring some fault that would mean death” [Ex. 28: 40-43]. Anointing with the Chrism is also mentioned in the case of the Israelite kings and prophets like Saul [1Sam 10:1], David [1 Sam. 16:13] Solomon [1Kgs. 1:39] and Elisha [1Kgs. 19:16]. The anointed one belongs to God, carries His authority and receives God’s very same spirit. The term Christ as we know comes from Hebrew which means the anointed one – Masiha. Jesus quotes Isaiah 61:1 when He claims that He is the anointed of God: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me…….”. The anointing with the Holy oil makes one receive the Spirit of God and belongs to Him.
All of this, beloved brethren, is to remind ourselves that, as the Church celebrates the Last Supper of Christ on Holy Thursday, which is the great festival of Christ’ self donation to us through the Eucharist and which is linked intimately with our own priestly mission, we ought to in union with the Church praise and thank God for our own priesthood and understand that through our Priestly anointing we do not belong to ourselves anymore but to God. Indeed every baptized Christian who by reason of his or her own anointing with the Holy Chrism belongs to God, is consecrated to Him and is a Christos, an anointed one. But ours is an even more profound belonging. The people of Israel by the ratification of the covenant of Moses did belong to God for He became their God and they his people. But he did choose Aaron and his sons for a special belonging which is what Christ exemplified in a most sublime manner through his own anointing or belonging, of the order of an even nobler priesthood, that of Mechizedek as the letter to the Hebrews states [Heb. 8: 1-9: 12].
The challenge is indeed great. By reason of our own anointing and placing on of hands, we, in imitation of and sharing with Christ that very special consecration, are called upon to constantly live that belonging. Pope Benedict XVI saw in both the laying on of hands and in the anointing at our ordination that special belonging to the Lord. Stated the Pope: “at the centre is the vey ancient rite of the imposition of hands with which He took possession of me saying to me: “you are under the protection of my hands. You are under the protection of my heart ………stay in my hands, give me yours. Then let us remember that our hands were anointed with oil, which is the sign of the Holy Spirit and His power……. The Lord has laid His hands upon us and He now wants our hands so that they may become His own in the world” [Homily on 13th April 2006 at the Chrism Mass]. Indeed God wants our whole being; He has separated us from the world in order to belong to Him and to the Church so that we may make holy all those we meet, all those we touch with our shepherdly care and concern. That separation actually makes us more profoundly linked to humanity. St. John Mary Vianney, the Cure’ of Ars stated: “the priest is not a priest for himself; he does not give himself absolution; he does not administer sacraments to himself. He is not for himself, he is for you” [The Little Catechism of the Cure’ of Ars, Tan Books, North Carolina, 1951 p 35]. The Lord separates us from the world not to isolate us but to make us even more present in that area of life which is most painful to humanity, which is its slavery to sin and death.
And so beloved brethren, our priestly consecration or ordination does not wrest us out of the world but out of the world of self and selfishness. It makes us belong to God and to our brethren even more profoundly. So it was for Jesus, the Messiah, the anointed of God. He belongs not only to the Father, who anointed Him but also to us. He is one with us. And sharing in that same anointing and placing on of hands we too belong to God and to our flock in the same way. It is significant then that today together with the blessings of the Holy oils, we renew our priestly commitment crowning it with the celebration of the Eucharistic self giving of Christ at the Last Supper. The call to belong to God and to the community, the self giving of the High Priest at the new Passover and the call to agape and diakonia which we are solicited to imitate, are all part of our priestly calling in its most profound identity. For at the Last Supper Jesus loved us most intimately by not only wanting us to be part of His sacrifice but also showing us how to wash each others feet. In us and in our consecration to God we ought to celebrate and live these twin belongings, to God and to our flock, assiduously in the Spirit of Christ’s own self effacing love and service of our brethren. “Love one another as I have loved you” [Jn. 13:34] and “If I, then, the Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you should wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you” [Jn. 13: 14-15].
Beloved brothers in the priesthood, on our ordination day which is truly a beautiful memory which lingers on afresh and gives much joy to us always, our hands were anointed with the Holy Chrism and hands were placed on us by our Bishop and our brothers in the priesthood. That anointing makes us God’s very own, as it was for Aaron, and so too the placing on of hands. These also make us belong to our flock in a profound way. The fact that all the priests place hands on us along with our bishop symbolizes this special belonging to our flock, the Church. Our lying on the floor, the promises we make and which we renew at this ceremony each year, the entire community praying for us all show that ontologically we lose our very identity if we cut ourselves off from God and from our flock. If we consider our flock unimportant to us or make our relationship with them a matter of bureaucracy, special days, a matter of appointments and mere meetings and paper work we would militate against our very being.. Instead the intensity of our commitment to the Lord and to our people is best manifested in our readiness to be spent for them, to be concerned about them and to help them to come closer to God. We ought to be on pins for them all the time. If we instead show lethargy or are disinterested in them or even annoyed with their, at times, wayward ways we have lost our priestliness to mundane inclinations.
Pope Francis speaking of our anointing states: “the ointment is not intended just to make us fragrant, much less to be kept in a jar, for then it would become rancid and the heart bitter” [Homily, Chrism Mass, 28th March 2013]. He wants us to do our best, to get out of ourselves, to seek and find, to be ready to even lay down our lives as the Lord Himself did, to become the Eucharist for our people – united firmly to the sacrifice of Christ. The Pope insists that it is our “unction” that matters not the function. He also states that “the sacred robes of the High Priest are rich in symbolism. One such symbol is that the names of the children of Israel were engraved on the onyx stones mounted on the shoulder pieces of the ephod, the ancestor of our present day chasuble: six of the stones on the right shoulder piece and six on that of the left” [cf. Ex. 28: 6-14]. This means that the priest celebrates by carrying on his shoulders the people entrusted to his care and bearing their names in his heart – when we put on our simple chasuble, it might well make us feel, upon our shoulders and in our hearts, the burdens and the faces of our faithful people” [idem].
Beloved brethren, let us be conscious then of this grave responsibility thrust upon us and which we consciously accepted on our ordination day. Let us not spare any sacrifice to help the Lord to realize this mission and find joy in giving up our own, perhaps even humanly speaking, just demands of a happy earthly life, for the sake of our mission and commit ourselves, as we renew these our priestly promises, to love and serve God and our flock, usque ad effusionem, sanguinis or unto the shedding of our blood. Amen.