“Free to Be Light, Strength, Healing and Consecration for the World”

Homily for the Chrism Mass
March 21, 2024; St. Mary’s Cathedral


“Renewable energy.”  The phrase has become a constant refrain in our time, as the search for clean and renewable sources of energy continues to amplify.  But for all of the strides that have been made to wean our economy off of fossil fuels, it can still be said – like it or not – that oil is the lifeblood of our economy.  The oil in this case, of course, is petroleum, and those not fortunate enough to drive an all-electric vehicle feel the value of it every time they fill up the tank – the proverbial “pain at the pump.”  But petroleum serves as much more than a fuel; it is the raw material used in so many products that are part of modern life, everything from awnings to umbrellas.

Infinite Renewable Source of Energy

The lifeblood of the ancient world was oil, too: olive oil.  Jesus and his contemporaries used it for cooking, as we do, but it was essential to every aspect of life.  It provided fuel for lamps, so they could cast light and dispel darkness; it strengthened athletes, and spreading it on their bodies enabled them to slip away from their opponent; it was used to heal wounds; and it was poured out to anoint persons set apart for sacred duties.  This all-embracing use of olive oil is at the heart of our celebration today.  We bless the Oil of the Catechumens, which is used to strengthen those who have entered into the combat against evil in preparation for baptism.  We bless the Oil of the Sick, which is used to heal those who are ill and also to prepare them for their final journey from this world.  And we consecrate the Sacred Chrism, which is used to sanctify the baptized by which they are given the light of faith, confirm them in the Holy Spirit, and consecrate the priests of the New Covenant.

What is the source of the power in these oils to illuminate, strengthen, heal, and consecrate?  It is the Holy Spirit, the gift of the risen Christ.  Long ago, St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote: “The Lord received anointing on his head in order that he might breathe incorruptibility on the Church.”[1]  The risen Lord gives us in these holy oils something that our world longs for, indeed, even beyond what it longs for: not a renewable source of energy that will eventually be expended, but an infinitely renewable source of energy.  God’s power to enlighten us, heal us, strengthen us, and sanctify us can never be depleted, because it is infinite Love.  No matter how much progress scientists make in finding new, clean and renewable sources of energy, every created energy source can last, at best, only as long as this creation does.  Only love is stronger than death; only love is an infinitely renewable source of energy.

To say that love is stronger than death reminds us that the energy given us from the risen Christ was tapped at a very high price: it came from his Passion and death.  The Seer in our second reading describes the scene of Christ’s return in glory, but he reminds us that the one who comes amid the clouds has been pierced.  The oil of incorruptibility with which Christ anoints his Church could only be produced by crushing the olives.  The Lord’s Passion began in a garden, which reminds us of the very beginning of creation; but the garden of our Lord’s agony was called Gethsemane, which means “olive press”.

At the heart of our faith is the Paschal Mystery, in which life comes out of death.  When we look at what Jesus suffered, we see the mirror opposite of all the blessings we receive from the oils that will be blessed and consecrated this evening.  Oil provides light, but darkness covered the earth during the Passion.  Oil strengthens and heals, but we see Jesus slapped, scourged, forced to carry his Cross, and finally dying in agony.  Oil anoints prophets, but Jesus was condemned to death as a false prophet.  Oil anoints kings, but Jesus was crowned with thorns and mocked as “the King of the Jews”.  Oil anoints priests, but Jesus was driven out of the holy city to die on a garbage heap.  It seemed that the energy of love in Jesus had been completely exhausted with his final breath and the piercing of his Heart.  But his energy was not only human: it was divine.  He told his disciples on the night of his arrest: “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you” (Jn 15:9).  The Father’s love for the Son is greater than any created reality, more powerful than death itself, and it is this love that comes to us from the crucified and risen Lord.

Response to God’s Love

Our first response to this love is gratitude.  That is why we bless and consecrate these oils during a celebration of the Eucharist.  And what do we offer the Father to express our gratitude?  The sacrificial death of His Son, which is not only the great act of divine love, but also of human love.  His self-offering is both the Father’s love for us and our love for the Father.  This is why St. Paul teaches: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26).  Like the oil, the wheat and grapes that become the Body and Blood of Christ must be crushed.  Once again, life comes from death.

Our second response to the love God lavishes upon us through His crucified and risen Son is suggested by an instruction given to priests at their ordination, but which applies to all of the Christian faithful, each in accordance with his or her vocation in life: “Imitate the mystery you celebrate.”  We understand the Lord’s commandment at the Last Supper, “Do this in memory of me”, to refer not only to offering the Paschal sacrifice of the New Covenant, but the fulness of what that means: imitating Christ’s total self-giving in love.  We ratify our participation in Christ’s sacrifice by saying to God and to our neighbor, “This is my body, given for you.”  Ignatius of Antioch understood this.  Travelling to Rome for his execution, he begged the Christian community there not to show him a “misplaced kindness” by interfering: “Let me be the food of beasts that I may come to God.  I am his wheat, and I shall be ground by the teeth of beasts, that I may become Christ’s pure bread.”[2] 

We gather in peace this evening to offer Christ’s sacrifice, but many of our brothers and sisters come together, if they can, in circumstances of danger and persecution.  Our hearts are heavy for so many of them across the globe who face grave danger and the threat of death and even torture because they believe.  We think of the victims of wars such as in Ukraine and Gaza; Christians in China deprived of basic rights and detained in prison for standing for justice and freedom; our fellow Catholics in places such as Nigeria, who are gunned down, sometimes even while worshipping in church, because they maintain the integrity of the faith, with similar fates suffered by those in Syria and other parts of the Middle East; and closer to home is the crisis in Nicaragua, in which the Church is being shut down and bishops and priests sent away in exile, if not imprisoned.  May our prayers travel to them and to so many in other places throughout the world where men, women and children are suffering persecution for their faith.  They share the great honor of the bishop Ignatius who, at the beginning of the second century, travelled from Syria to Rome for his execution. 

The Challenge of Freedom

We have been spared their awful ordeal, but we all have our part to play in helping Christ carry his Cross.  Some among us are worn down by illness, others need the light of the Gospel to burn more brightly, and others have lost an awareness of the consecration to God they received in baptism.  We have other forces in the West – more social and political in nature – that pressure us to abandon the faith or pay the price of social stigmatization for not doing so.  Only the one who can preserve integrity of conscience in such a situation is truly free.

Pope Francis offered a reflection on this in his Lenten message this year.  Drawing on the example of the ancient Israelites being set free from slavery in Egypt, he speaks about the deeper reality of freedom.  He says:

The call to freedom is a demanding one.  It is not answered straightaway; it has to mature as part of a journey.  Just as Israel in the desert still clung to Egypt – often longing for the past and grumbling against the Lord and Moses – today too, God’s people can cling to an oppressive bondage that it is called to leave behind.  We realize how true this is at those moments when we feel hopeless, wandering through life like a desert and lacking a promised land as our destination.  Lent is the season of grace in which the desert can become once more – in the words of the prophet Hosea – the place of our first love (cf. Hos 2:16-17).  God shapes his people, he enables us to leave our slavery behind and experience a Passover from death to life.  Like a bridegroom, the Lord draws us once more to himself, whispering words of love to our hearts.[3]

The oils which we will soon bless and consecrate will be the means by which Christ whispers those words of love to our hearts, equipping us to be capable of the demanding call to freedom.  Great spiritual maturity is necessary in order to be truly free, and the one who is, is renewed by Christ to be his light, strength, healing and consecration for the world.  These same oils will be taken to your parishes and other communities of faith, and in many places they will be prominently displayed in your church or chapel.  But they avail no one so long as they remain behind glass.  We must break the containers so that the fragrance of the ointment will fill the whole house (cf. Jn 12:3).  It is by lives poured out in worship of God and service to others that this is done.  I invite all of you here this evening not simply to be witnesses to the blessing and consecration of these oils, but pipelines that will convey the light, the healing, and the joy of God to others.

Priestly Consecration

And in this context it is most appropriate for me to address a special word to my brother priests.  Your lives are inextricably linked to these oils, for with them you have been consecrated to manifest Christ’s presence in a unique way, and with them you in turn anoint his people.  This configuration to Christ the Priest necessarily entails a special configuration to Christ the Victim, for one of the hallmarks of his priestly sacrifice was that he did not offer some other creature, a bull or goat – he offered himself.  I don’t know what your mother told you on your ordination day, but the mother of Don Bosco told him: “To begin to say Mass is to begin to suffer.” 

As we go about our daily lives as priests, we find that our motives are sometimes misunderstood, our best efforts seem to meet with little success, and our very way of life is considered foolish by many people.  Some of our good and faithful priests continue to be viciously maligned in public media in what is an unrelenting campaign to discredit the Church.  Even if we find it difficult to defend ourselves, we can rejoice that the Lord defends us, as he did the woman who poured the ointment upon him: “Why do you trouble her?  She has done a beautiful thing to me. … She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burying” (Mk 14:6-9).


That is what our priestly ministry entails, and all Christian discipleship: to pour ointment on the suffering body of Christ to prepare it for burial.  Why this extravagance?  Because that is what faith and love are like.  For those who believe in Jesus Christ and love him, no gift of ourselves to him can be too much.  We share with Ignatius of Antioch this same faith and love which strengthened, enlightened, and consecrated him on his journey to death: “The Lord received anointing on his head in order that he might breathe incorruptibility on the Church.”

[1] Letter to the Ephesians, 17.1 (Office of Readings, Monday of the Second Week of Ordinary Time).

[2] Letter to the Romans, 4 (Office of Readings, Monday of the Tenth Week in Ordinary Time).

[3] Message of His Holiness Pope Francis for Lent 2024, “Through the Desert God Leads Us to Freedom”.