“I saw the sign”
I don’t know if the members of Ace of Base were Catholic, but if they were, they definitely could not help but see signs, for they would be surrounded by them, especially during Holy Week.
I originally meant to post this last Thursday, but, alas, it did not make it out of my draft file until now.
So, a couple of nights ago, priests from around the Diocese of Sacramento gathered with my bishop, His Excellency Jaime Soto, at the beautiful Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament for the annual Chrism Mass.
At this special Mass (which in other [arch]dioceses takes place on Holy Thursday), the holy oils used in the sacraments are blessed or—in the case of the Sacred Chrism—consecrated.
As Catholics, we have a sacramental theology in which signs (i.e. things we use, words we say, and actions we do) have a deeper meaning than what may appear on the surface. There is a physical reality and a spiritual reality, a visible component and an invisible component.
Ah, what mystery!
Since all of creation is the work of God’s hands and the product of His masterful design, everything on earth and in the heavens praises the Creator as the Church sings in the glorious canticle from the 3rd chapter of Daniel:
“Bless the Lord all you works of the Lord. Praise and exalt him above all forever. Sun and moon, bless the Lord. Stars of heaven, bless the Lord. Every shower and dew, bless the Lord. All you winds, bless the Lord. Fire and heat…Dew and rain…Ice and snow…Lightening and clouds…Mountains and hills…Seas and rivers…You dolphins and all water creatures…All you birds of the air…All you beasts, wild and tame, bless the Lord.”
Therefore, for us Catholics, we must always remember that matter matters. God gave us His creation which He called good; He gave us our bodies to perceive the works of His hands; He taught us to use certain elements of His creation to worship Him, to sanctify ourselves and our world, and, in the case of the sacraments, to be used by His Church to dispense the fruits of Christ’s death and resurrection.
In the sacramental life of the Church, especially during the Sacred Triduum, the use of signs is abundant, for sometimes ordinary language is not enough, especially when we are trying to communicate the great moments leading to Jesus’ ultimate act of love and mercy for us. And, since God Himself has taken on our flesh, He knew that we needed signs, so He gave us the Eucharist (which effectuates what it signifies), the cross, the water and Blood which flowed from His side, the empty tomb. Sometimes signs speak more eloquently than words. Signs communicate something about our faith; they help us encounter mystery.
One of these signs is olive oil. In the Chrism Mass, the bishop blesses the Oil of the Sick (used in the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick) and the Oil of Catechumens (used in the Sacrament of Baptism); and he consecrates the Holy Chrism (used in the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders, as well as in the dedication of a church and an altar). Chrism comes from the Greek word for “anointing”, so by its literal meaning, chrism is closely connected with Christ, the “Anointed One”.
As part of the rite for the consecration of chrism, the bishop adds balsam or perfume. Our lives of virtue, then, that ought to flow from the sacrament we have received should be our fragrant offering to God, a pleasing odor of sanctity. How sensual, or, rather, sensory is the experience of the faith, that even the sense of smell is engaged in our liturgy!
The rite also indicates that the bishop may breathe on the chrism as shown in the picture above. Breath, although we may not often be aware of it, is a powerful sign of life. It calls to mind the breath of life blown into the nostrils of Adam, the breath that Jesus exhaled upon His disciples, and the mighty wind of the Holy Spirit which blew upon the Apostles at Pentecost. So, when the bishop blows upon the chrism, it is a sign of the Holy Spirit descending and consecrating the oil for its sacred, life-giving purpose.
Here is one of the prayers for consecrating the Holy Chrism; notice how even the prayer begins by recalling how oil and water are signs.
God our maker,
source of all growth in holiness,
accept the joyful thanks and praise
we offer in the name of your Church.
In the beginning, at your command,
the earth produced fruit-bearing trees.
From the fruit of the olive tree
you have provided us with oil for holy chrism.
The prophet David sang of the life and joy
that the oil would bring us in the sacraments of your love.
After the avenging flood,
the dove returning to Noah with an olive branch
announced your gift of peace.
This was a sign of a greater gift to come.
Now the waters of baptism wash away the sins of men,
and by the anointing with olive oil
you make us radiant with your joy.
At your command,
Aaron was washed with water,
and your servant Moses, his brother,
anointed him priest.
This too foreshadowed greater things to come.
After your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
asked John for baptism in the waters of Jordan,
you sent the Spirit upon him
in the form of a dove
and by the witness of your own voice
you declared him to be your only, well-beloved Son.
In this you clearly fulfilled the prophecy of David,
that Christ would be anointed with the oil of gladness
beyond his fellow men.
And so, Father, we ask you to bless + this oil you have created.
Fill it with the power of your Holy Spirit
through Christ your Son.
It is from him that chrism takes its name
and with chrism you have anointed
for yourself priests and kings,
prophets and martyrs.
Make this chrism a sign of life and salvation
for those who are to be born again in the waters of baptism.
Wash away the evil they have inherited from sinful Adam,
and when they are anointed with this holy oil
make them temples of your glory,
radiant with the goodness of life
that has its source in you.
Through this sign of chrism
grant them royal, priestly, and prophetic honor,
and clothe them with incorruption.
Let this be indeed the chrism of salvation
for those who will be born again of water and the Holy Spirit.
May they come to share eternal life
in the glory of your kingdom.
We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Lastly, the Chrism Mass has a special connection with the priesthood. Last Thursday night, the priests in the Diocese of Sacramento came home, in a sense, to the Mother Church of our diocese in a sign of unity to Bishop Soto, their spiritual father, and of fidelity to Christ, the High Priest. Throughout the Mass, they would have recalled their ordination day and, according to the missal, would have renewed their priestly promises beginning with these words by the bishop, “Beloved sons, on the anniversary of that day when Christ our Lord conferred his priesthood on his Apostles and on us, are you resolved to renew, in the presence of your Bishop and God’s holy people, the promises you once made?”
Then, after receiving the holy oils, they return with to their own parishes and use them in their priestly ministry to us their children. So, this Holy Week, particularly on the date of your (arch)diocese’s Chrism Mass and on Holy Thursday, the traditional day when Jesus conferred the priesthood upon His Apostles and instituted the Eucharist, please remember to offer a prayer for your (arch)bishop and your priests, particularly the priest that baptized you and all those who heard your confession.
PRAYER FOR PRIESTS
we pray that the Blessed Mother wrap her mantle around Your priests and through her intercession strengthen them for their ministry.
We pray that Mary will guide Your Priests to follow her own words, “Do whatever He tells you” (John 2:5). May your priests have the heart of St. Joseph, Mary’s most chaste spouse.
May the Blessed Mother’s own pierced heart inspire them to embrace all who suffer at the foot of the cross. May Your priests be holy, filled with the fire of Your love seeking nothing but Your greater glory and the salvation of souls. AMEN!
Mary, Queen and Mother of priests, pray for us!
Saint John Vianney, pray for us!
(Photo: from the parish blog of St. Andrew the Apostle in Waynesboro, PA. I believe the above picture is a photo of Bishop Joseph McFadden of the Diocese of Harrisburg.)