Holy Week provides all of the faithful, from the pope down to the infant just baptized, an opportunity to enter into the Paschal Mystery of Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection in the most intimate of ways. Holy Week is marked by numerous mystery-laden and symbolic rituals that draw us nearer to the Lord’s life, so that we may learn how to live our life in imitation of him.
For the laity, this week is to some degree a marathon of running back and forth to Church for different devotions and sacraments, and sometimes the feast of faith unfolding before their eyes can be somewhat obscure. Nothing may make this more obvious than the Chrism Mass, where the Holy Oils are blessed by the bishop, the priests renew their vows, and the faithful in the pews seem somewhat of an afterthought to what is going on. I truly hope that this article can help each person see that the ritual prayed fully can be deeply impactful for each person in the pews as they participate in the greatest prayer in the world.
The Chrism Mass, like most every other Solemnity and many special Feasts, has an Old Testament reading, a Psalm, a New Testament reading and a Gospel. This is nothing new. You will notice that the readings focus on two primary themes: anointing and proclamation. The reading from Isaiah is echoed in the Gospel when Jesus reads from the scroll of Isaiah 61:1-3a:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.
Anointing and proclamation are essentially tied to the priests and prophets of the Old Testament. By their essence, we understand that anointing and proclamation are not accidental to the identity of the priest and prophet but are constitutive of who he is. An analogy here may help. A baseball player is someone who can throw, catch, and hit a baseball (even if he does the latter poorly); his height, weight, and nationality are accidental to his essence as a baseball player, even if they do affect how well he can perform the duties of baseball that flow from his essence as a baseball player. So likewise, the priest and prophet may be tall or short, bearded or clean-shaven, funny or serious, but these are all accidental to his essence as one who is anointed and anoints, and who proclaims what he has received.
When Christ instituted at the Last Supper the priesthood of the New Covenant, he knew fully all that the Old Testament understood and believed about the priesthood and ordained through his divine action and prayer a new priesthood, that of the New Covenant in his Blood. Now I do not want to get into a lengthy explanation about the priesthood at this point but want to draw your attention to two significant scriptural points that relate directly to the ministerial priesthood, as we see it today in the Church.
In the background of the Last Supper, during the first Mass in all of human history, Jesus does two things: first, he washes the Apostles’ feet (Jn 13:5). This is symbolic of baptism, it is a sign of ritual purification, and it is a profoundly humble act, not even one that could be required of the lowliest Jewish slave. So right away, the Lord offers to priests a key to their identity, or essence – one of service. The washing of the feet is full of symbolism and recalls when Mary (presumably Mary Magdalene) washed the feet of Jesus in costly oil (an anointing), and likewise recalls the ritual purification of the High Priest of the Old Covenant before he entered the temple. Using your imagination and these scriptural clues, you can see how the New Covenant priesthood of Jesus Christ is instituted: through a material symbol (water and/or oil) and the words of Our Lord, “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do” (Jn 13:15).
The second thing he does at the Last Supper is proclaim a New Commandment. “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another” (Jn 13: 34). Jesus Christ himself, not the pope, not the bishop, but the Lord himself, makes clear to the Apostles the virtue that is the cornerstone of his life- LOVE! This is not an emotional self-obsessed love, but the love that is foreshadowed in the washing of the feet and fulfilled on the Cross. It is totally self-giving, not interested in getting something in return and without exception.
To anoint and to proclaim, these verbs (words that describe an action) are at the heart of the priesthood, and flow from his identity, or essence. Anointing takes many forms, but one can see it especially in the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, the ordination of priests, and in the anointing of the sick. Through these sacred actions, people are born into new life with God, filled with the Holy Spirit, ordered more intimately to direct imitation of Christ, and spiritually cured (sometimes physically too!) and prepared for heaven. Since the priest is himself anointed, he has the power to anoint. This is not because he is so great, but because the One High Priest, Jesus Christ, is acting through him and anointing through His priests.
To proclaim also takes numerous forms: to teach catechism and sacramental formation; to preach the homily; to do podcasts occasionally; to speak at public events when asked. However, the most obvious way a priest proclaims the faith is by his very life. He is called, and makes a promise, to be a living witness of Christ and his saving grace, in and out of season, just as St. Paul proclaims. He accomplishes this through his prayer, his mortifications, his consistent witness to charity (often unseen) and even through his clothing. To manifest Christ’s presence in the world is something each and every priest makes a promise to do for his whole life, and to do otherwise would be to betray who he is.
“Are you resolved?” This is the way the questions of renewal from the bishop to the priests are asked at every Chrism Mass throughout the Church in Holy Week. Are you resolved to anoint and proclaim? Are you resolved to conform your life to Christ on the Cross? Are you resolved to live out the promises you made at your priestly ordination? The last question is phrased as such: “Are you resolved to be faithful stewards of the mysteries of God in the Holy Eucharist and the other liturgical rites and to discharge faithfully the sacred office of teaching, following Christ the Head and Shepherd, not seeking any gain, but moved only by zeal for souls?”
What a question! Your priests, men like any other, are wholly committed to this great responsibility, imperfect as they may be. You can pray more fully with the Church, if you keep this in mind throughout Holy Thursday, or whenever your diocese celebrates the Chrism Mass. That one called Father is to be a servant who proclaims love, and who is to imitate with his whole life the life of Christ, with all of the sufferings, sorrows, joys and peace that come with it. Pray for him, that he may be resolved!