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Homily - Mass of Chrism - Bishop McKeown


St Eugene’s Cathedral, April 6th 2023

This evening, as we celebrate the Last Supper, we begin these three days that will bring us through the horrific events of Calvary, the aching emptiness of Holy Saturday and the shock of Easter Sunday. But this morning we hear about Jesus first public sermon in St Luke's Gospel. He talks about himself being anointed with the Holy Spirit - and the second reading talks of us all being a kingdom of priests. We are that royal priesthood, not because of our talents but because that Jesus becomes the sacrificial Lamb who gives all to take away the sins of the world – our weakness, our unresolved anger, the guilt and the memories that make us limp along. The theme of anointing is emphasised by this ceremony including the blessing of the Oils that will be used during the next year to anoint God's holy people. So, what does this anointing tell us about who we are and where we are going?

Firstly, Christianity is a very physical religion. Some other religious and philosophical traditions play down the body as if it were a shell from which we will be liberated. Some versions of Christianity tend to fear the body. But in Jesus the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. Jesus takes our bodies seriously. They are anointed to be Temples of the Holy Spirit. We receive the Body of Christ in Holy Communion. And we believe that our bodies will be raised upon the last day. We read about Jesus being anointed for his mission of bringing and being Good News. He will touch lepers and heal the crippled. He takes our physical pain seriously. He suffers pain on Calvary, and – as Hebrews say – he learned to obey through suffering. He is the compassionate God, who suffers with us in our loneliness and despair.

That strong realism lies behind our sacramental imagination. Despite the results of Original Sin, God loves the world and glimpses of the divine can be revealed in human love, in a new-born baby, in a sunset over a beach. If we can see his blood upon the rose, then we are opened up to believe that the divine can be borne by bread and wine, water and oil. And a sense of God in our midst nourishes our sense of mystery at the beauty of the world. When we degrade the environment, we degrade ourselves and the greatness of which we are capable. Our parishes with their ordained clergy are called to live and celebrate that mystery. The events of these days invite us into the mystery of Christ among us, our hope of glory. That is the sacred space that Christ walks with us.

Secondly, our culture sometimes claims to celebrate the body and our freedom. But we see that, as we lose any sense of the Creator, we grow increasingly confused as to who we are as creatures. When we lose our sense of ultimate value, we end up having to make up an identity without any plan or purpose. When we lose any sense of meaning, we become the authors of our own misfortune. And we become addicted to bad news, tempered with the vinegar of hollow laughter.

I appreciate that many people suffered in the past because of rigid social rules that undergirded power structures. We risk an equal degree of culpable blindness in our own time. It will take courageous leaders in our day to contradict the new ideology that the body is a plaything and that it is a good idea to do whatever I want. The challenge for Christians communities is to find ways of talking about the body, human relationships and sexuality that inspire our contemporaries to see the sacredness of intimacy and human capacity for destructive sin. Angry condemnations serve no purpose. Today, as we bless these sacred oils that will anoint our bodies in Baptism, Confirmation, Ordination and in sickness, we pray for the grace to proclaim the wisdom of the Gospel in ways that bring good news to the broken-hearted and anger only the strong. That is a tough task for all who proclaim the Gospel.

Thirdly, if our bodies are anointed to be holy, then we are called to become a holy people. The Israelites were told, 'Be holy, for the Lord your God is holy'. 'Be perfect,' Jesus taught, 'as your Heavenly Father is perfect.' But because Jesus became Emmanuel, God with us, holiness is not an escape from the world. Holiness is very concrete. Sanctity is no use if it is kept only for within the four walls of this building. The prophet Ezekiel has a strong image of water flowing from under the gate of the Temple and bringing life to the desert. Holiness within the prayer and sacramental life of the church is meant to flow out into the streets. Be salt to the earth and light to the world, says Jesus. Salt that loses its taste and a light hidden under a barrel are of no use. Let your light shine before people, continues Jesus. We all know great people coming from a faith background who were the peacemakers here because they did not lock Jesus up in a church. Renewal will come from anointed laity and ordained clergy who are committed to being holy.

I thank the priests for faithfulness and dedication in difficult times. They labour, often alone, under many burdens, personal and pastoral. In so many places, they have great parishioners who appreciate their witness. Keep praying for them and working with them. Through our shared witness God can do great things. The ceremonies of these days will be scarcely noticed by many of our contemporaries. There will be sports events on Friday and Saturday nights and parties all weekend. But as some choose to follow Jesus to Calvary and the tomb, this Mass of Chrism sets the tone for what we will celebrate in our churches. We will re-enact the suffering and betrayal of Jesus. We will live with the Holy Saturday emptiness that so many families know. But we do that so that we can be strengthened for the mission of bringing good news to the poor. There is much pain in our streets and communities. Many hang on their cross each day. Others have lost a sense of who they are and what their lives are worth. Can we live the next three days with prayer and fasting? Only if we enter into the reality of sin and suffering can we expect to be surprised by resurrection.

+ Donal McKeown

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