Lessons on Chrism from PE Benedict XVI

April 2, 2015

Holy oilsEvery time I read a sermon or writing from PE Benedict XVI I fall in love with this great teacher all over again. The simplicity and clarity of his words unveil the greatest of mysteries perfectly comprehensibly. So it is with his April 1, 2010 sermon at the Chrism Mass on Holy Thursday. This is the Mass where the bishop consecrates the holy oils (sacramentals) for use in every parish. Let’s read how Papa Benedetto explains chrism and its symbolism:

At the center of the Church’s worship is the notion of “sacrament”. This means that it is not primarily we who act, but God comes first to meet us through his action, he looks upon us and he leads us to himself. Another striking feature is this: God touches us through material things, through gifts of creation that he takes up into his service, making them instruments of the encounter between us and himself.

There are four elements in creation on which the world of sacraments is built: water, bread, wine and olive oil. Water, as the basic element and fundamental condition of all life, is the essential sign of the act in which, through baptism, we become Christians and are born to new life. While water is the vital element everywhere, and thus represents the shared access of all people to rebirth as Christians, the other three elements belong to the culture of the Mediterranean region. In other words, they point towards the concrete historical environment in which Christianity emerged. God acted in a clearly defined place on the earth, He truly made history with men. On the one hand, these three elements are gifts of creation, and on the other, they also indicate the locality of the history of God with us. They are a synthesis between creation and history: gifts of God that always connect us to those parts of the world where God chose to act with us in historical time, where He chose to become one of us.

Within these three elements there is a further gradation. Bread has to do with everyday life. It is the fundamental gift of life day by day.

Wine has to do with feasting, with the fine things of creation, in which, at the same time, the joy of the redeemed finds particular expression.

Olive oil has a wide range of meaning. It is nourishment, it is medicine, it gives beauty, it prepares us for battle and it gives strength. Kings and priests are anointed with oil, which is thus a sign of dignity and responsibility, and likewise of the strength that comes from God. Even the name that we bear as “Christians” contains the mystery of the oil. The word “Christians”, in fact, by which Christ’s disciples were known in the earliest days of Gentile Christianity, is derived from the word “Christ” (Acts 11:20-21) – the Greek translation of the word “Messiah”, which means “anointed one”. To be a Christian is to come from Christ, to belong to Christ, to the anointed one of God, to whom God granted kingship and priesthood. It means belonging to him whom God himself anointed – not with material oil, but with the One whom the oil represents: with his Holy Spirit. Olive oil is thus in a very particular way a symbol of the total compenetration of the man Jesus by the Holy Spirit.

We are anointed with oil at Baptism, the sacrament that makes us children of God and enables us to enter heaven if we are faithful to our Baptismal promises. At Confirmation we are again anointed with oil and receive the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit which strengthen us to live a true Christian life. In the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick we are anointed with oil which serves as medicine and strengthening of the soul and sometimes the body. Holy oil is also used in conferring the sacrament of Holy Orders. All of this oil is consecrated at the Chrism Mass.

In the Chrism Mass on Holy Thursday, the holy oils are at the center of the liturgical action. They are consecrated in the bishop’s cathedral for the whole year. They thus serve also as an expression of the Church’s unity, guaranteed by the episcopate, and they point to Christ, the true “shepherd and guardian” of our souls, as Saint Peter calls him (1 Pet 2:25).

At the same time, they hold together the entire liturgical year, anchored in the mystery of Holy Thursday. Finally, they point to the Garden of Olives, the scene of Jesus’ inner acceptance of his Passion. Yet the Garden of Olives is also the place from which he ascended to the Father, and is therefore the place of redemption: God did not leave Jesus in death. Jesus lives forever with the Father, and is therefore omnipresent, with us always.

This double mystery of the Mount of Olives is also always “at work” within the Church’s sacramental oil. In four sacraments, oil is the sign of God’s goodness reaching out to touch us: in baptism, in confirmation as the sacrament of the Holy Spirit, in the different grades of the sacrament of holy orders and finally in the anointing of the sick, in which oil is offered to us, so to speak, as God’s medicine – as the medicine which now assures us of his goodness, offering us strength and consolation, yet at the same time points beyond the moment of the illness towards the definitive healing, the resurrection (cf. Jas 5:14). Thus oil, in its different forms, accompanies us throughout our lives: beginning with the catechumenate and baptism, and continuing right up to the moment when we prepare to meet God, our Judge and Savior. Moreover, the Chrism Mass, in which the sacramental sign of oil is presented to us as part of the language of God’s creation, speaks in particular to us who are priests: it speaks of Christ, whom God anointed King and Priest – of him who makes us sharers in his priesthood, in his “anointing”, through our own priestly ordination.

After pondering the Pope’s words, I can never again just take holy oil for granted. I will always see its supernatural purpose and regard it as a sign of God’s great love for us. How fortunate we are to have Christ among us in the sacred priesthood, particularly our bishops who consecrate this material of creation to be a symbol of God’s continual reaching out to us and gathering us to Himself as part of one great family.

A blessed Holy Week and Happy Easter to all.

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V. Praised be Jesus Christ!

R. Now and forever!

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