The Cathedral of St Stephen, Brisbane
Olives are everywhere in the Mediterranean world, and the human communities which gather round the Middle Sea float on a sea of olive oil. The oil of the olive is a marvellous thing, given the many uses to which it is put. Yet it could hardly be more common; it’s in every kitchen and on every table.
So the oil we bless this evening is nothing if not ordinary. Yet once we bless it in the name of God and in the power of the Spirit, the oil becomes not magical but extraordinary. It becomes the oil of the sacraments, those unique moments of saving encounter between God and us in Christ.
It becomes the oil of the Church, bringing to birth a priestly, prophetic and kingly people. Like the oil, we too are ordinary, created by God yes, but stuff of the earth. Yet once the Spirit is breathed into us and we are incorporated into Christ, the Anointed One, we become extraordinary, like the oil, not because of anything we have done but because of what God does to us. God consecrates us as the Church and we consecrate the oil as the Church. God takes us from the stuff of the earth and sets us apart for his own purposes as a priestly, prophetic and kingly people. But what does that mean?
In the Old Testament, the question was always, ‘How will the blessing promised to Abraham and his descendants be mediated to the Chosen People?’ The blessing was the gift of a life bigger than death, symbolised for Abraham by a child and a land of his own, since in his culture a man lived on beyond death in his progeny and patrimonial land, both of which Abraham lacked, whatever else he had. He appears, then, as the human being in whose life death has the last word.
Through time, the answer given was that the blessing would be mediated through the saving institutions of ancient Israel – the monarchy, the prophetic movement and the priesthood. These three institutions would rise and fall through history, one more dominant at one time, another at another time, often for political reasons. When the kings were unfaithful, the voice of the prophets resounded; when the monarchy disappeared at the Exile, the priesthood became dominant once the exiles returned. In Christian understanding, all three of these saving institutions converge in the figure of Jesus Christ, who is priest, prophet and king; and the Church, as the Body of Christ, incorporated into him, acquires the same triple character which is proper only to him.
In the Old Testament, priests, prophets and kings were anointed. The anointed one was an ordinary human being entrusted with an extraordinary mission – to mediate to God’s people in a particular time and place the blessing God had promised to Abraham and his descendants in every time and place. The anointing of Jesus by the Spirit is, however, an eternal anointing. His mediation is forever; and if the priests, prophets and kings of ancient Israel were to mediate the blessing to the Chosen People, the mediation of Jesus is universal. It is for everyone in every time and place; and if we the Church are incorporated into Christ by the Spirit’s anointing, then we are to mediate the Abrahamic blessing to everyone and forever. No-one is excluded; nor does the mediation ever cease. The good news is for all the poor, not just the supposedly deserving; the healing is for all broken hearts, however they may be broken, even if the heart-break is self-inflicted; liberty is for all the captives, not just some, or those whose liberty suits our purposes and doesn’t disturb our comfort.
“You will be named priests of the Lord”, says the prophet Isaiah after the return from Exile; and so it is with us. That’s what we celebrate this evening – our anointing as a priestly people. But we will be that in name only unless we pass on the blessing of good news, healing and liberty to everyone, everywhere and at all times – not waiting for the poor, the broken-hearted and the captives to come to us, but going in search of them in a society like ours where they can be hard to see at times.
The Apocalypse tells us that the Lord who loves us “has washed away our sins with his blood, and made us a line of kings, priests to serve his God and Father”. The sin he washes away is what leaves us poor, broken-hearted and captive; and his salvation means for us good news, healing and liberty. What he has done for us he summons us to do for the world, not turning away from the poor, the broken-hearted and the captives, nor turning only to those whom we judge deserving, who suit our purposes or who don’t disturb our comfort. That sin too he washes away, so that we can be kings and priests not just in name but in fact; and he washes away our sins with his blood. For him to mediate the fulness of blessing cost him his life on the Cross; and for us to mediate the blessing now will mean that we shed our blood, just as his blood has washed away our sins. Blood and oil are mysteriously intermingled.
So too, historically, kings and priests have intermingled. The English monarch, when crowned, is anointed and wears a stole: he or she is also priest, at least in some sense. The Pope of Rome, who is Pontifex Maximus, the high priest, has also been for centuries a monarch, the last absolute monarch in Europe, even if the papal monarchy is on the wane. The kings of ancient Israel had certain priestly functions; and after the return from Exile when the monarchy had vanished, the High Priest wore the royal diadem as a sign that the priesthood now mediated the blessing, which depended upon the Temple ritual.
So what we do tonight has deep roots in time, taking us back to Abraham, our father in faith, to whom was promised a blessing and through whom a blessing was promised by God not only to Abraham’s descendants but to the whole world. Our celebration leads us through the history of ancient Israel and through much of European history since then. But, more importantly, it takes us to the heart of what it means to be the Church, and this at a time when our vision of the Church can shrink to the point where the Church can seem just another outdated and discredited human institution. The Church is human, ordinary in so many ways. Yet like the oil, God makes more of it. God chooses ordinary human beings and sets them apart as an anointed people in order to offer the world the blessing of a life bigger than death. The Church can do this only because we have been incorporated into Christ, the Anointed One, through whom the fulness of blessing comes once he rises from the dead. Only with his resurrection is the promise fulfilled.
We also celebrate tonight the ordained – ordinary men who are set apart and consecrated at the heart of the priestly people, so that the Church may in fact mediate the blessing to the world. Leadership in the Church is changing, in part because we will not have the number of ordained men to provide the leadership which the Church needs at this time. But baptism is the prime sacrament of incorporation into Christ, and we continue to explore its meaning in a way that enables us to see that ordained leadership, which is essential for the life of the Church, has to take its place with other forms of leadership rooted not in ordination but in baptism. To think that ordained leadership is the only form of leadership in the Church is to lapse into clericalism. But to think that ordained leadership is to be consigned to the past is to misunderstand the truth of the Church called into being by Christ and in the end to misunderstand the truth of Christ himself.
This is the truth, always new, that brings us together this evening to bless and consecrate this humble oil for the year of grace stretching before us. As we gather round the oils – Catechumens, the Sick and the Chrism – we look upon the Anointed One himself, the Christ whom we have pierced, and we see not just the stuff of earth but “the first-born from the dead, the ruler of the kings of the earth, the Alpha and the Omega, who is, who was and who is to come, the Almighty”. Amen.