Thursday, March 20, 2008

Chrism Mass

I was honored to have been invited by the Bishop of Northern Indiana to deliver the homily for the annual Mass of Chrism, held in the Cathedral Church of St James in South Bend last Saturday. The Chrism Mass is the occasion when the clergy of a diocese gather to renew their ordination vows with the Bishop, and at which the Bishop consecrates oils to be used in Baptism, Confirmation, and the Ministry of Healing.

Luke 4:16-21

Isaiah 61:1-8

Revelation 1:4-8

Well … it is a singular honor and privilege to have been invited to share the Word of God with you here in this place and on this occasion. As I look around at you, I am acutely aware that everyone made a substantial sacrifice in order to be here. It’s Saturday morning—a time when errands get done, and the house gets whipped into shape after being allowed to slowly surrender to chaos during the week. For clergy—and Altar Guild members!—it’s the day before Palm Sunday, the day before Holy Week begins. There is not a soul in this room who would not have had several worthwhile things to do with the time that is now being devoted to the Mass of Chrism.

We lead such busy lives. I won’t even argue with you about whether they’re over-busy; it doesn’t matter—we’re busy. We’re busy doing good and worthwhile things. We’re busy in our secular lives and we’re busy in our ecclesial lives—our lives in and with the Church. We’re busy in the Church and, together, we’re busy as the Church. As the Church, we do a great deal, and, for the most part, it is good—very good. We engage in corporate worship—on Sundays and holy days, and, many of us, on ordinary weekdays. We say our private prayers—sometimes fervently, sometimes perfunctorily, but we say them. We engage in evangelism—sometimes intelligently and enthusiastically, sometimes stupidly and timidly, but we do it. We participate in service to society—feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, comforting those who mourn, advocating for social structures that more closely reflect the justice of God. We study—we teach and we learn: We study the Bible, we study theology, we study the history and tradition of the Church. We come together and form Christian community: We share coffee and cookies in the parish hall after Mass on Sunday, we show up for small group Bible study and sharing opportunities, and through it all, we hope that we are learning to model a viable alternative society, and alternative to the broken world in which we live. And we intercede for that world; we lift up before God the woundedness and fear, the jealousy and envy, the suspicion and hatred that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God and draw us from the love of God. And in our prayers, we often—more and more within the Christian community these days, I would say—in our prayers we often ask for healing. In the confidence that we serve the God of life and health, and in the conviction that there are those among us whom the Spirit has specially gifted with the ministry of healing, and in faith that when God says he acts through the sacraments, he indeed acts through the sacraments, we offer our prayers for healing, and we watch it happen, and it changes our lives.

These are all things we do as the Church. Sometimes we do them well and sometimes we do them poorly, but they are all on our radar screen to one degree or another. And much of what we do, when we indulge ourselves a moment or two to reflect—much of what we do in fact seems to echo the ministry of the One in whose name we are gathered today, and by whose title—that is, Christ—we dare to call ourselves as we claim to be “Christians.” But it very often seems to us as if we are an aggregation of hamsters each spinning his or her own little wheel, and from that perspective, it can be discouraging, because it always seems like we should be spinning the wheel faster because not enough is getting done. We lack the long view, we don’t see how the pieces all fit together, and we are easily discouraged as we busily—more and more busily all the time—as we busily spin our hamster wheels.

So my first bit of good news for you this morning is to tell you that today’s scripture readings have the potential—the potential, at least—to make us feel a whole lot better about the individual jobs we’re doing spinning our wheels, because they filter everything through one very helpful lens. From the Revelation to St John the Divine: “To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father…”. A kingdom of priests. A priestly people. It is our identity as a priestly people—a “kingdom of priests”—that makes everything we do as the Church coherent. The psychologists use the German expression gestalt to talk about a single unifying insight that, without necessarily even using very many words, helps simplify a very complicated situation and make it more accessible to our minds and imaginations. As we continue to spin our individual hamster wheels, not able to see how all the wheels relate to one another, the knowledge that we are a kingdom of priests, a priestly people, gives us hope that we are not “spinning” in vain.

Let’s unpack this, shall we?

The priestly character of the Church takes its shape—we might say that it’s “under the cover” of—the priestly character of the Church takes its shape from the one High Priest, the one who is a “priest forever after the order of Melchizedek”—that is, Jesus. Jesus is the archetype—the model, the template, the pattern—for all priesthood. Indeed, strictly speaking, Jesus is the only real priest; any exercise of Christian priesthood “borrows” from Jesus, who is its rightful “owner”

In Jesus’ ministry in the Nazareth synagogue as recorded for us in St Luke’s gospel, we see Jesus’ priestly ministry expressed, as it were, in a capsulated form. Think of it like a “zipped” computer file—you know, after you download some software from the internet, you have to “unzip” the file before you can actually install it on your hard drive. The incident in the Nazareth synagogue tells us what we need to know about the priesthood of the Christ, and, in turn, about the priesthood of the Church, the collective priesthood of the people of God.

In the passage from Isaiah that Jesus read in the synagogue, and which we also read in this liturgy, the prophet—and, we are to understand, Jesus as well—Jesus is anointed by the Holy Spirit, anointed for the specific task of preaching good news: Preaching the good news that poverty does not have the last word; God has the last word, and that word is abundance. Jesus preaches the good news that captivity does not have the last word; God has the last word, and that word is liberty. Jesus preaches the good news that darkness does not have the last word; God has the last word, and that word is light. Jesus preaches the good news that oppression does not have the last word; God has the last word, and that word is joy.

As a priestly people, we stand in the gap between poverty and abundance, between captivity and freedom, between darkness and light, between oppression and joy. A priest is a mediator, a go-between. A priest mediates between those conflicting forces. And just as there is only one priest, so there is only one mediator—Christ Jesus. But Jesus has shared his ministry with us, and we stand in the world as his representatives. We stand in the world bringing Christ to the world and bringing the world to Christ. “Christ for the world we sing; Christ to the world we bring.” And as the priestly people of God, bringing Christ to the world and the world to Christ, we derive our vocation, our calling, from the Lord’s charge to Isaiah. The Lord told the prophet, “You shall be called the priests of the LORD, men shall speak of you as the ministers of our God.” Isaiah, and Israel through him, was given a priestly vocation by the Lord. And as heirs of the promise, we as the Church have inherited that same vocation, that same calling.

But even though, together, we form a priestly people, we don’t just all exercise all elements of that ministry at the same time and in the same way. We work in a manifold variety of specific ways. So, in a way, I’m sending us back to our personal hamster wheels, but now with a much clearer vision, I hope!

Some among us just pray—and, I don’t need to tell you, these are probably the most important ministers we have! Some of us mix it up with the world, “speaking truth to power” about things that concern the heart of God. Some learn voraciously and teach relentlessly, forming our minds with the mind of Christ, and helping others form their minds the same way. Some give encouragement, or tangible help, in all sorts of ways. Some “perfect the praises of God’s people” through art and music. Some model the servant leadership of Jesus in an iconic way—these we call deacons. Some model the pastoral ministry—the shepherding ministry—of Jesus in an iconic way—we call some of them bishops, and the ones who cannot reproduce themselves (!), we call presbyters, or priests. Some have the gift and calling to pray specifically for healing, and that gift will get exercised here today!

As the clergy renew their vows, and as we bless the oils used in the manufacture of new Christians and the manifestation of God’s desire for healing in all circumstances, we bear witness to one another of our collective priestly character—we are the “anointed ones.” We are privileged to share the ministry of the Anointed One—the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the Living God. May his name be praised now and through ages of ages. Amen.

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