18 Apr 2012

Diocese of Limerick Holy Oils Service - Meditation No. 2 - Br Martin Browne OSB

Diocese of Limerick Holy Oil's Service
Meditation No. 2.
Br Martin Browne OSB
St John's Cathedral
April 4th 2012

I saw some pictures on the internet last night of the Chrism Mass in Westminster Cathedral in London. It was a grand occasion. Archbishop Nichols, his predecessor, Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor, several auxiliary bishops, and over 300 priests, all attired in very elegant, new, matching chasubles, designed to pick up some of the beautiful artwork in the Cathedral. Somebody put a lot of work, and not a little money, into preparing for the liturgy…

As I scrolled through the pictures, I saw a photo of some people with placards who had gathered on the plaza in front of the Cathedral. Oh dear, I thought… ‘What are they protesting about?’… To my surprise, they weren’t complaining about against anything. They were ‘protesting’ in the sense of ‘bearing witness to’… Their placards bore such radical slogans as ‘We love our priests’ and ‘Thank you to our priests’

It was a sweet, but somewhat unusual little demonstration. It’s great that those people appreciate their pastors. However, maybe it’s not so great that the Chrism Mass has tended to become thought of as being largely, or even only, about the ordained priesthood… It’s easy to see why that has happened. The late Pope Paul VI introduced a little ceremony into the Mass where the priests present renew their priestly promises. And because the Chrism Mass is, in theory, supposed to be on Holy Thursday, there’s a natural link between that day, the day of the Last Supper, and the ordained priesthood. The late Pope John Paul used to issue a letter to all the priests of the world on Holy Thursday each year too. So, all of this – the big gathering of priests, the renewal of priestly promises, the letter from the Pope, and the obvious fact that the oils are, in a sense, part of the ‘toolbox’ of a priest, combined to make the Chrism Mass feel like it was all about the priesthood. It’s not!


What is celebrated in the Chrism Mass, and for us here tonight, by extension, is not a celebration of the priesthood of any man or group of men. It’s a celebration of the priestliness of the Church, and it is a celebration, fundamentally of the priesthood of Jesus Christ. Christ… Khristos… Messiah… Messias… Meshiach. Whether we use Greek, Latin or Hebrew, they all mean the same thing – the Anointed One…


And so the liturgy of the Holy Oils is the annual celebration by the gathered local Church of the priesthood of Jesus-the-Anointed-by-the-Spirit. His priesthood is shared in different way by the baptized and the ordained. His priesthood is exercised in the sacraments, especially the sacraments most closely associated with the Eucharist: the sacraments of initiation and of orders, as well as the sacrament of the sick.

We are a priestly people. Tonight, we are not just receiving and giving thanks for the Holy Oils. We are praying for everyone and everything they will anoint in the coming year. Think about it! It will take your breath away…..
  • Every Catholic in this diocese who becomes sick between now and next year’s Chrism Mass (and please God, there will be one….) begins to be healed by our prayer for them tonight as we receive the Oil of the Sick.
  • Every inquirer in this diocese who becomes a catechumen between and next year’s Chrism Mass begins to be prepared for the sacraments of initiation by our prayer for them tonight as we receive the Oil of the Catechumens.
  • Every baby in this diocese who is baptized between now and next year’s Chrism Mass begins to receive a ‘deposit’ on his/her confirmation by our prayer for them tonight as we receive the Holy Chrism.
  • Every young person and adult in this diocese who is confirmed between now and next year’s Chrism Mass begins to complete her/his initiation by our prayer for them tonight as we receive the Holy Chrism.
  • Any priest (and, please God, bishop) to be ordained between now and next year’s Chrism Mass begins, in a sense, to be ordained by our prayer for them tonight as we receive the Holy Chrism.
We are ‘Christ-ened’ people. We have been ‘Christ-ed’. We share in his anointing…


The Scripture reading we just heard isn’t the most well-known in the Bible, but it is very beautiful. The sheer exuberance of it is delightful. All these expensive spices, myrrh, cinnamon and cassia being mixed into olive oil. It sounds like a manual for an aromatherapist. But the finished produce wasn’t just fragrant oil. It was a ‘sacred anointing oil’. Precious, like the work of a perfumer, but holy as well. All the furnishings of the Temple were to be anointed with it – the tabernacle, the altar, the vessels. The Christian Church still uses Chrism to anoint altars and churches. It was also to be used to anoint the sons of Aaron – the priestly group in Israel, to consecrate them for their duties. The oil was to be kept apart. It was sacred and was worthy of veneration – it is holy and it shall be holy to you. The Christian Church still anoints priests with Chrism. Priests are anointed on their hands, and Bishops are anointed on their head.

Too often, holy anointing is just a finger dipped into a little vessel like a tiny egg-cup, and so the result is a sort of greasy thumb-print. I saw it done more beautifully at the ordination of Bishop Kieran O’Reilly of Killaloe 18 months ago. There was no silver egg-cup. The Archbishop of Cashel was instead presented with a jug of Chrism. No room for soggy finger-prints here then! It had to be a real anointing. And so, he just poured a big glug of it onto his palm and rubbed it liberally into the new Bishop’s head. It was delightful! You could get the smell the perfume all over the church. It was glorious.

It was messy though… When he was given the zucchetto – the pink skull cap – the oil soaked into it and it stuck to Bishop O’Reilly’s head. It was obviously brand new, but he had to leave the sanctuary at the offertory to replace it. (Happily, Archbishop Clifford always carries a spare and he was willing to share!) It ran down his cheeks, and into his beard and onto his vestments. I couldn’t help thinking of Psalm 132:

How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,  running down over the collar of his robes.
It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion.
For there the Lord ordained his blessing, life for evermore.

I’m sure the dry-cleaning cost a bit… And when I thought the new bishop was being overcome with emotion while trying to read his address of thanks at the end, he wasn’t. He was struggling because he could no longer see properly because the oil had run on to his glasses! It was certainly chaotic and untidy, but as a sign of God’s generosity and the abundance of the Kingdom, it was beautiful. There was a real sense of the Holy Spirit being poured out on the new Bishop. The symbol made sense, and drew us in.

But getting back to the reading… There’s a difference between what was proposed in Exodus, and what we do as Christians. Exodus instructed Moses to anoint the Temple furnishings and the priests. As I said, we still do that. But we do something more… The Christian Church uses the same Holy Chrism to anoint ALL of its members. Most of us here have been anointed with Chrism twice – once after our Baptism and once at Confirmation. We have been anointed with the same precious, holy oil, pregnant with the Holy Spirit’s power and grace. The Prayer of Consecration for the Chrism contains the beautiful request to God that the oil will be ‘a sign of life and salvation’ and that those anointed with it may be granted ‘royal, priestly, and prophetic honour’.

What was once reserved the Holy of Holies and the Sacrificing Priests is now poured out on each one of us. We are ALL priests, prophets and kings! Something to think and pray about and to glory in with joyful trust……

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