Wednesday of last week, in lieu of celebrating on Holy Thursday, our diocese celebrated the Chrism Mass. As a seminarian on internship, I am asked to serve at all of the diocesan liturgies that I can. This was especially exciting because I don’t normally get to attend Easter season liturgies; seminary is in session until the Friday before Palm Sunday. The icing on the cake for this Mass was that I was invited to be the thurifer (the official name for the server who handles the incense) – one of my favorite symbols within the Mass.
The Bishop with the Eucharist in the Cathedral!
Let me talk briefly about cathedral Masses. First of all, the cool factor starts with being at the cathedral. The cathedral! Someday I’m hoping to go through and photograph the place. But don’t let my future plans shortchange your enjoyment; check it out on your own from their own website. After checking out our cathedral – which is an awesome church – I definitely recommend looking up your own diocesan cathedral. The amazing thing about cathedrals is that there is a great deal of consideration that goes into the architecture because of the meaning behind cathedrals: that it is the seat of authority of the ordinary of a see. Saint Peter’s Basilica is the seat of the Holy See (Rome), Saint Patrick’s is the seat of the See of New York and Saint James is the seat of the See of Seattle. …but I digress.
The second most awesome part about liturgies at the cathedral is that usually the priests of the diocese also gather with the archbishop and auxiliary bishops. This is most strongly evidenced at ordination Masses, when nearly all the priests of the diocese come together to welcome the newly ordained to the presbyterate. Throughout the year the presbyterate comes together on various occasions, but never as strongly as in the Mass, when they celebrate in union with their bishop.
But that isn’t the best part of liturgies at the cathedral. That honor belongs to the presence of the faithful, whom come from all ends of the diocese to celebrate with their bishop and his priests. When I say all ends of the diocese, I’m talking from the northern and southern-most tips of the diocese. From as far as Forks, WA – which you can see from the Google map is probably the furthest away you can get!
Liturgies like this are a symbol in themselves. This is the local church, gathered under one who is a direct descendant – by ordination – of the Apostles. When the faithful, the priests and the bishop are gathered together in the celebration of Mass, the entire Church is represented – and Christ the Head is also present, in His priests, His bishop, in His promise, and most significantly in the Sacrament of the Eucharist. This is it, folks – the Mass celebrated with all of the Church’s members represented – and it just doesn’t get any better.
I’d like to show you a brief part of the liturgy. After the homily the bishop is presented with the oils to be blessed. This is one of the three presentations & blessings:
(Presentation of the Oil for Chrism and the Balsam Essence)
( text from Chrism Mass Order of Worship)
Oil Bearer: Archbishop, behold the Oil for the Sacred Chrism.
Priest: Archbishop Brunett, we bring this oil from the fruit of the olive tree and ask that after mixing it with the sweet perfume, you consecrate it for the sealing of the baptized in the Sacrament of Confirmation; for anointing the hands of the priest, and the head of the bishop in Holy Orders; and to anoint the altar and the walls of the house for the Church in the Rite of Dedication.
Those among us who baptize infants, prepare the elect and the candidates of our parishes for Confirmation; who work with candidates for ordination, and those of us who prepare to dedicate new places of worship, ask this blessing.
Essence Bearer: Archbishop, behold the essence for the Sacred Chrism.
Priest: Archbishop, we bring this sweet perfume to be mixed with this olive oil, that it might become the sweet odor of the Gospel, the blessed presence of the anointed One, Christ the Lord.
Procession to the Chrism standard
Let us pray
that God our almighty Father will bless this oil,
so that all who are anointed with it
may be inwardly transformed
and come to share
in eternal salvation.
(Archbishop slowly breathes over the vessel of Chrism)
God, we thank you for the gifts
you have given us in your love:
we thank you for life itself
and for the sacraments
that strengthen it
and give it fuller meaning.
In the Old Covenant
you gave your people a glimpse
of the power of this holy oil,
and when the fullness of time had come
you brought that mystery to perfection
in the life of our Lord Jesus Christ your Son.
By his suffering, dying and rising to life
he saved the human race.
He sent your Spirit to fill the Church
with every gift needed to complete your saving work.
From that time forward,
through the sign of the Holy Chrism,
you dispense your life and love
to your people.
By anointing them with the Spirit,
you strengthen all who have been reborn in baptism.
Through that anointing
you transform them into the likeness of Christ your Son
and give them a share
in his royal, priestly, and prophetic work.
(Archbishop extends his hands over the Chrism)
And so, Father,
by the power of your love
make this mixture of oil and perfume
a sign and source of your blessing.
Pour out the gifts of your Holy Spirit
on our sisters and brothers
who will be anointed with it.
Let the splendor of holiness
shine on the world
from every place and thing
signed with this oil.
Above all, Father, we pray
that through this sign
of your anointing
you will grant increase to your Church
until it reaches the eternal glory
where you, Father,
will be all in all,
together with Christ your Son,
in unity of the Holy Spirit,
for ever and ever.
. . . . Its amazing how just one prayer can be so powerful.
There is a principle that I was introduced to in seminary (Thank you Father Martis): lex orandi, lex credendi . Essentially the principle is that what we believe is reflected in what and how we pray; we truly act out our faith. The Catechism explains it well:
The law of prayer is the law of faith: the Church believes as she prays. Liturgy is a constitutive element of the holy and living Tradition.
Thus, the best examples are found in the Mass.
Take the second Eucharistic prayer (the oldest – from the anaphora of Saint Hippolytus). The priest first praises God the Father, praying in words that reflect the words that the faithful say just before (“It is right to give him thanks and praise”). He concludes the opening of the prayer by saying:
And so we join the angels and the saints
in proclaiming your glory
as we say:
Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.
And then the faithful kneel.
Where else does this occur? Take a brief look at these Scriptures: Isaiah 6:1-7, Matthew 21:9 and finally, Revelation 4:8-10. The Sanctus comes from Scripture. . . . and so does the kneeling! The whole Mass is about us on earth joining those in Heaven in praising and receiving the Lord.
And so we join both our words and our actions to those of our family in Heaven. Our faith – that we believe in and worship the Lord, the God of power and might – is expressed. We say the words (because words truly are important) and we match ourselves physically to the words we say.
Lex orandi, Lex credendi, applied
The presentations and prayers over the oil of the chrism and the balsam essence are great examples of this principle. Take a look at oil in our Scriptures and Tradition.
Note also that Moses anointed the altar and the things that were associated with it in order to consecrate them. (Seem familiar?)
Anointing of oil was also prescribed in the New Testament for the healing of the sick. Mark’s Gospel shows the Apostles, by the command of Jesus Himself, going out preaching, driving out demons and anointing with oil those who were sick. Later, in James 5:14, we read the command to have the presbyters (elders – priests!) pray over and anoint those who are ill.
Anointing is, then, a source of grace and of healing. Through anointing the Holy Spirit works in the lives of those anointed and in the places of sacred celebrations.
Anointed with the Holy Spirit
Remember when Jesus made Himself unpopular? (Hmm. Maybe that needs to be narrowed down.) You know, when He got up in the synagogue and made the audacious claim that the Scriptures He had just read were about Him? It was in Luke 4:16-21 and Jesus said there something extraordinarily significant: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me [emphasis mine]”.
But Jesus wasn’t anointed with oil, so when did this happen? And while the Son of God doesn’t need one, is there any kind of precedent? The answer can be found in the Scriptures that Jesus was reading (Isaiah 61:1). And then there was Jesus’ baptism. Jesus was sinless – and is one of the Persons of the Trinity – what was the point of baptism? There is Jesus’ solidarity with humanity in its sinfulness, but there is also something more. The descent of the Spirit of God like a dove, coming upon Him! For Jesus, this fulfilled prophecy in marking Him as the Messiah of the Lord.
But for those who come after Him, there is something significant. In His baptism, Jesus changed what baptism does for all those who are baptized in His name. In our baptism in the name of Jesus, we may receive the Holy Spirit!
In the Acts of the Apostles, an interesting distinction is made. Lets take a brief glance at Acts 8:14:
Now when the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent them Peter and John, who went down and prayed for them, that they might receive the holy Spirit, for it had not yet fallen upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid hands on them and they received the holy Spirit.
Do you see it? There was something more needed for those in Samaria? They had been baptized, but hadn’t yet received the Holy Spirit. For that, something more was needed. From this practice of the Apostles has grown the theology and practice of Confirmation.
The Chrism Mass: Where it comes together
Alright, so we’ve gone through the continuity of oil throughout salvation history. We know that oils were used in some of the most sacred points of that history, from the Levitical priesthood to the priesthood of Jesus Christ. We know that oils are used today in baptism, confirmation, anointing of the sick and ordination. Can you imagine what would happen if we didn’t have these oils? The Sacraments are not just words; they are words, actions and substances brought together for the benefit of humanity. If you remove (or change) any part of this, you change – or make incomplete – that Sacrament! What would any of these four Sacraments be without the oils that accompany them?
The final piece, then, is the sanctification of the oils. This only happens once a year and it is notable to recognize that this can only be done by the bishop, who is a direct descendant of the Apostles by the character of his ordination.
And so we return to the prayer over the oils. As a descendant of the Apostles, the bishop alone has the authority to lead the Mass and blessings that sanctify the oils for their proper uses. Did you notice how the bishop breathes over the Chrism in the middle of the prayer? Recall when Jesus came to the Apostles in the upper room and He breathed upon them, saying “Receive the Holy Spirit”. In this same manner – with the same action, the bishop is asking that the Holy Spirit accompany the Chrism in its sacramental use. Lex orandi, lex credendi!.
In the end. . .
There really is an ultimate goal to all of our liturgical celebrations: the salvation of souls and the reunion of all humanity – in the unity of one Body (thats the Church) – with God. The Chrism Mass is no different in this regard. But it is a shining moment in the liturgical year, as it visibly brings together the whole Church in those present and it illustrates the unity of God’s plan throughout all of history.
The next time you witness a baptism or confirmation (or when you receive them yourself), or perhaps when you have the opportunity to see the consecration of a church or the ordination or a priest, recall that this oil, with which all the baptized have been anointed and sealed for redemption, is one of the great sources of grace given to us by God through the Church. Pretty amazing. Pretty awesome.
May you have a blessed & joyful Holy Week and Easter.
- Jacob Maurer