The Lord’s Anointing for the Incorruptibility of the Church

Homily for Chrism Mass
By Most Rev. Salvatore Cordileone
Archbishop of San Francisco
March 26, 2015; St. Mary’s Cathedral

Our annual celebration of this Chrism Mass occurs as Holy Week is soon upon us, truly the high point of the Church’s liturgical cycle.  We will commemorate and spiritually relive the life-giving mysteries of our Lord’s final days on earth in the moving ceremonies of Palm Sunday and the Easter Triduum.  We will recall that the fulfillment of our salvation began in a garden on the eve of our Lord’s Passion: the Garden of Gethsemane, located on the lower slope of the Mount of Olives.

Olives Crushed for Precious Oil
That garden reminds us of another garden, the garden at the beginning of creation.  God created the man and woman and placed them in the Garden of Eden.  Of course, we know the story doesn’t end there, and that’s why we needed a Savior!  Yes, because of human disobedience sin entered the world and with it death, and so the man and the woman were expelled from the garden.  A little later on, the story of the flood teaches us that God had to wash the world clean of sin, a foretelling of what God would do for us in the sacrament of baptism.  And what was the sign that the flood had subsided and peace had returned to the earth?  The olive – specifically, the dove returning to Noah with the olive branch.

It is from the olive that we extract the oil that brings us so much delight in ways both profane and sacred, from food preparation to the sacred rites of the Church.  But this was even more so the case in Jesus’ time.  Indeed, olive oil was essential to every aspect of life in the ancient world.  Besides using it for cooking, as we do, it provided light in lamps, strengthened athletes, was used to heal wounds, and 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, confirm them in the Holy Spirit, and consecrate the priests of the New Covenant.

This is the true peace that God grants us by incorporating us into the dying and rising of His Son through the sacramental life of the Church, as the prayer for consecration of the Sacred Chrism, which I will offer in a few moments, proclaims in reference to the story of Noah and the flood: “After the avenging flood, the dove returning to Noah with an olive branch announced your gift of peace.  This was a sign of a greater gift to come.  Now the waters of baptism wash away the sins of men, and by the anointing with olive oil you make us radiant with your joy.”

What is the source of the power in these oils to illuminate, strengthen, heal, and consecrate, and so bring us God’s peace and joy?  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.”  The risen Lord gives us God’s power to enlighten us, heal us, strengthen us, and sanctify us.  But let us not forget how the oil is extracted from the olives to make anointing possible: the olives must first be crushed.

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 – by our Lord himself being crushed for us.  And its fulfillment began in Gethsemane, which means “olive press”.

That agony in the garden followed immediately after Jesus left us the memorial of his suffering and death in the Last Supper.  And the sacramental life of the Church makes us a part of it.  That is, 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 imitating Christ’s total self-giving in love.  All of the saints, and above all the martyrs, understood this.  St. Ignatius of Antioch understood this.  Travelling to Rome for his execution, he begged the Christian community there not to show him a “misplaced kindness”, giving another image of the sort of crushing that he was to undergo: “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.”  

Sharing in Christ’s Cross
Yes, in Christ’s sacrifice God restores us to peace, and we are blessed to gather in peace this evening to offer Christ’s sacrifice.  Yet, many of our fellow Christians come together, if they can, in circumstances of danger and persecution.  At this time of the year when our thoughts focus on those holy places where our Lord’s saving Passion, death and Resurrection took place, we cannot but be especially mindful of our brothers and sisters in the Middle East.  To them our Holy Father recently wrote:

Dear brothers and sisters who courageously bear witness to Jesus in the land blessed by the Lord, our consolation and hope is Christ himself.  I encourage you, then, to remain close to him, like branches on the vine, in the certainty that no tribulation, distress, or persecution can separate us from him (cf. Rom 8:35).  May the trials that you are presently enduring strengthen the faith and fidelity of each and all of you!

At the beginning of the second century, the bishop Ignatius travelled from Antioch in Syria to Rome for his execution.  May our prayers travel to those suffering so terribly for their faith today in the Middle East and elsewhere throughout the world.  They are literally the martyrs of our time.

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.  Some need encouragement and renewal to persevere in their vocation, and others need to forgive or seek forgiveness for offenses received or inflicted.  The oils which will soon be blessed will be the means by which Christ renews the members of his Body, the Church.

In this context I would like 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.  In keeping with the Church’s rites for this Chrism Mass, in a few moments you will renew the promises you made on the day of your priestly ordination.  Now, 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.  We do not need to defend ourselves, but we certainly can rejoice that the Lord defends us, as he did the woman who poured the ointment upon him: “Why do you make trouble for her?  She has done a good thing for me. … She has done what she could.  She has anticipated anointing my body for burial” (Mk 14:6.8).

That is what our priestly ministry entails, and all Christian discipleship: to pour precious ointment on the suffering body of Christ to prepare it for burial. Why this extravagance?  Because we share that same faith which strengthened, enlightened, and consecrated St. Ignatius of Antioch on his journey to his death: “The Lord received anointing on his head in order that he might breathe incorruptibility on the Church.”