“All who see them shall acknowledge them as a race the Lord has blessed”.
When the youthful Jesus stood up in the Nazareth synagogue and took Isaiah’s prophecy as now His own, he proclaimed that God’s Spirit was upon Him and indeed, in a unique way, properly His. The Spirit made him the Christus, the Unctus, the Anointed One. While that day in Nazareth led to his own townsfolk expelling him for blasphemy, He never ceased to fulfill the promise he made to the Father, “A body you have fitted me. Behold I come to do your will”. His identity is sealed by the Spirit, the same Spirit he promised and passed on to his disciples, the early community that grew to be the Church we recognize today as the source of our identity. Here in this one Catholic Church is where we too are anointed, we too are given the Spirit, we too become one with Him as His Body, his holy people.
The oil may fade but the sign of who we are, the cross, is inscribed on our hearts forever. The chrism we bless today is the seal of the Spirit, God’s gift of His love. And so we pray that “all who are anointed with it may be inwardly transformed and come to share in eternal salvation”. So anointed, we now have a name, an identity. We are Christians, a name that comes from belonging to God’s own Son, the Christ, the anointed One. “Through the sign of chrism”, God grants us all “royal, priestly and prophetic honor”. This is the chrism of baptism and confirmation by which we become one and are enabled to remain in him as His own people, His own Body, His own community of communion.
This same chrism is used by the bishop when he ordains priests, anointing their hands with the holy chrism as the sign of the indelible mark of ministerial priesthood. This makes us priests participants in Christ’s high priesthood for the rest of our lives on this earth and forever in the priestly kingdom of heaven. Those anointed hands are consecrated to bless and to baptize, to anoint the sick to the forgiveness of sins, to console and to embrace, to lift up the bread and wine and make them into the body and blood of the One who is uniquely THE CHRIST, God’s anointed, His Son in whom He is well pleased.
We all share in the identity of being brothers and sisters of The Christ, joined by the Spirit in a Church that is at once both invisible and visible. The visible reveals and expresses the invisible. But it is the one Church in accordance with God’s own design and brought into being by Jesus’ own redemptive actions. We are called to live our common vocation as a priestly people by building up the Church, by remaining one with each other, by testifying to Christ’s call by our every word and action. Ours is a Church that is sacramental. It is also hierarchical. It is supremely Eucharistic. All three of those aspects are intrinsic to who we are. They guarantee our identity. They ensure that we are living Christ’s life as He willed we do. And thus they are for us sources of grace, of joy, and of peace that comes form the unity they give us, the unity each of us must treasure and preserve.
Our gathering here at the Chrism Mass is one of the most striking visible expressions of this unity of the Church. Jesus describes it as our remaining in Him: Bishop, priests, deacons, consecrated women and men, holy priestly lay men and women all gathered here to listen to God’s Word and to celebrate the Eucharist of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are one in Him. And even when we are scattered across our Diocese in our parishes and communities, every celebration of the Eucharist re-lives that unity, strengthens those bonds that make us one. For this is how the gift of the Spirit is poured into our lives, the Spirit that is the lifeblood that courses through and gives life to the visible union that is ours as the Church of bishop, priest and faithful.
Yes, the Eucharist is the source and summit of who we are. As Bl John Paul II taught us, the Church is formed by the Eucharist which in turn nourishes and deepens and constantly renews the Church. Ministerial priesthood and Eucharist were born at the Supper Jesus celebrated with his soon to be apostles the night before He died. What he did, we now do. And what he commanded us to continue “in memory of me” is how we are formed in his Word, nourished by His Body and Blood and embraced in His love. Here the Church is born when at that Supper, Jesus instituted the Eucharist we celebrate and ordained the apostles to “do this in memory of me”.
We priests who are called to preside at the Eucharist, “in the person of Christ the High Priest”, listen with the whole body to the proclamation of the Word. That Word is Christ speaking to us all. Before progressing to the Liturgy of the Eucharist to which the Liturgy of the Word is intimately and inseparably connected, the great privilege of the priest or the ordained deacon is to “break open that word” for the people of God. This is properly their role by virtue of holy orders and it can be fulfilled properly only by them.
In his apostolic exhortation, Verbum Domini, Pope Benedict shared with us his own reflections on the Synod of Bishops on the Word of God. Echoing the Second Vatican Council’s admonition that “the first task of the priest as co-workers of the Bishop (is) to preach the Gospel of God to all”, Pope Benedict devotes an important part of his letter to the “importance of the homily”, a subject the bishops discussed at length in the Synod. I would invite my brother priests to read this at their leisure. But let me now share this with you. The Church has constantly reminded us priests that we who have the privilege of “expounding the Word of God” must do so with a profound sense of how important a responsibility this is. It is essential that the people of God receive sound instruction and Christ like inspiration from our words and our teaching. The Pope is very blunt but he is right. “The quality of homilies needs to be improved.” The homily is the principal way we bring God’s word and Christ’s message to the daily lives of our people. By the homily, we can open up to the people of God the depth and beauty of the mysteries we celebrate. By it, we can lead them to a deeper prayer life for themselves, the Church and the world. Through it, we can summon them to living out the mission of the Church which is to witness Jesus Christ to the ends of the world. He tells us, “Take this task to heart”. And he warns us “generic and abstract homilies which obscure the word…as well as useless digressions which draw greater attention to the preacher than to the heart of the Gospel” are to be avoided... The faithful should be able to perceive clearly that the preacher has a compelling desire to present Christ who must stand at the heart of every homily.” This means we must know not only what the text says but what the message means. We need to study the Scriptures attentively time and time again. “We must prepare the homily by meditation and prepare so as to preach with conviction and passion.” We must be above all hearers of the Word so we might be authentic preachers of the Word.
Once I asked Mons. Dzwisz how Bl John Paul II prepared his homilies. He answered “in the chapel”. And so he did. And so should we. If the priest is never more himself than when he stands at the altar, then we need to be equally identifiable when we speak from the pulpit.
What a glorious and noble task the Lord has given us! How eager we should be to make our homilies an encounter with Christ for our people! And how well have I heard you, my brother priests, do this time and again. I have told you before and I repeat it today: The quality of the homilies of the priests of our diocese is better than my experience in many other parts of the world. That is true or I would not say it. But we must be open to continuing to deepen our own grasp of the Word, the better to proclaim it. It is not enough to have given a great homily ten years ago. Every Sunday the Lord and His people expect our best effort. With that in mind we join all those preachers from Paul to Benedict who find their joy and their passion, their love and their identity in proclaiming Jesus Christ! He calls us. He sends us. He inspires us. He entrusted his message to us so that the people we serve can hear Him speaking through us. And we who have this precious role to fulfill know that standing beside us and ever present is His Mother, Mary, the Mother of the Church. She will help us because she, like the people here today, loves you, you, the priests of Her Son, and wants you to preach her son to His people. The Spirit of the Lord is upon you because He has anointed you.. You are the priests of the Lord.” You are called and sent to bring the good news to our people so that they will be called “the race the Lord has blessed”.