Homily for the Chrism Mass
March 30, 2015, Diocese of Lincoln, Monday of Holy Week
“No man may take this honor to himself, but only he may take it who is called by God as Aaron was.” These words are found in the Epistle to the Hebrews, Chapter 5, verse 4.
My brother Bishops, Bishop Conley and Bishop Cozzens, my dear brother Priests including my fellow Jubilarians, reverend Deacons, consecrated Religious women, most dear Seminarians, Knights and Ladies of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre, Knights of Columbus, and dear faithful Catholic Laity: Beloved in Christ
Some years ago at a State university in our country, an atheist professor, in conversation with the chaplain of the Newman Center at that university, taunted him a bit by saying, "The Hindus have a great river in India; Buddhists point to a banyan tree in Burma; Muslims to a black rock in Mecca. How do you fit into this religious anthropology scene?" The priest replied, "All those things, though interesting, are irrelevant, because we have an empty tomb."
Furthermore, the One who was dead and occupied that tomb for only a small period of time, is not only alive and reigning in heaven, but is with us still, walking, living, and breathing among us. And because of this empty tomb and One who came forth from it, risen and glorious, we have a Church which is indestructible, a doctrine which is infallible, a priesthood which is eternal, and a destiny which is immortal.
Now we are gathering this happy evening on one of the first days of a week we call "holy", called holy because it culminates in that empty tomb and the risen One. We are gathered for the beautiful duty of witnessing our Bishop bless the holy sacramental oils. We are about to witness and bless the Oil of the Sick, which imparts spiritual soothing and comfort, and is meant, eventually, to prepare our soul to walk through the doorway of death into the endless day of eternity. We are gathered to witness him bless the Oil of the Catechumens which will fill hearts with sacred knowledge and reverence, and will activate those it touches with prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. And then, we are gathered here to see our Bishop, not only bless, but also consecrate the Holy Chrism, which makes chalices and patens and church buildings into things suitable to hold what the whole universe cannot contain; that is to say, to make them temples of God Himself, and this holy oil, when it touches human beings, makes these beings into living temples of the living God. Sacred Chrism is also the sacramental oil which is used in the ordination of priests, and for this reason, we gather here tonight as well, to pray for and with our priests, surrounding the priests of our Diocese with our affection and prayers, and to contemplate anew that ancient room in the Holy Land called the Cenacle where the Divine Carpenter, on the night before He was nailed to the wood of the cross, instituted the greatest and most blessed of sacraments, and then immediately afterward, gave us that other sacrament of Holy Orders, which makes the sacrament and sacrifice of the Holy Eucharist possible, thus providing that the paschal event of our salvation is freely available to all of us down through the centuries.
Already in the second century, Saint Justin, the Martyr, said that the priesthood is the apex of all dignities. Saint Ephrem, in the fourth century, said that the priesthood is an astounding miracle, great immense and infinite. Each day the Catholic priest says the most sublime and magnificent words it is possible to say, "This is My Body", words which have no equal except for those said long ago by God Himself, "Let there be light".
In common estimation, the dignity of a man is reckoned by the character of the office he fills, or the duties entrusted to him. Judged by this standard, no worldly dignity can compare with that of the Catholic priesthood, whose authority comes from God and whose powers transcend earth, reaching up to heaven. Saint John Chrysostom said, "Speak not of the royal purple, of diamonds and vestments in gold cloth. These are but shadows, frailer than the flowers of spring compared to the power and privileges of the priesthood."
And whence arises, we may ask, this incomparable dignity of the priest. First of all, from his power to roll back the heavens, and bring down upon the altar the majesty of God, attended by His angelic train. The Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint Vincent Ferrer informs us, opened heaven only once, but the priest does so at every Mass. Exalted is the sovereignty of kings who rule a nation, but more sublime is the power which commands the King of kings and is obeyed. No wonder then, that Saint John Chrysostom can say, “When you behold the Lord, immolated and lying on the altar, and the priest standing over the sacrifice and praying, with all the people empurpled by that Precious Blood, how can you not imagine you are still not on earth and among men, but rather that you are brought up to heaven." What is given to the priest in sharing the one priesthood of the New Testament, the priesthood of Jesus Christ Himself, is also that divine power which is given to him to bring the forgiveness that Jesus won on the cross into the lives and souls of his followers. Who can forgive sins but God alone? Even the angels and archangels are not given such power, but this divine power is given to the priest who raises his hands and says, "Your sins are forgiven." At Christ's will, lepers were cleansed, and felt the pulsation of health tingling through their veins, but, more wondrous still, the word of the priest which causes the scales of the leprosy of sin to fall from a stricken soul, and restores it to pristine vigor and the beauty of sanctifying grace.
Preaching some time ago at the jubilee celebration of priests, it was said, "You are a priest forever, says Holy Writ, and at his ordination, the destiny of a priest is taken out of the hands of time. The priest senses in his youth the centuries of God's age and wisdom, and in his old age he is young with the everlasting vigor of God. In him impossible hopes that weave the dreams of mortality are all fulfilled. He it is who finds the fountain of perpetual youth. He it is who is custodian of the Holy Grail. He it is who wears invincible armor. His battles are with giants and dragons, and he is forever rescuing innocence, and he conquers evil, because he alone converts the evil doer. His victory is the peace of a thousand death beds, of souls redeemed by his endeavor. His glory is the innocence kept of the little lambs he feeds, and the virtues of the flock he shepherds. And though with his own mortal age, his shoulders bow and his hair is silvered, and his steps grow slow, though the leaf falls from his tree, and the vesture of his earth grows old like a garment, he remains the self-same and his years shall not fail. `This is My Body’, said the young priest 50 years ago, and `This is My Body' says the same priest today notwithstanding the mutations of a half century. It is the same Body, because it is Jesus Christ, yesterday, today, and the same forever. It is His Body which the priest calls mine. I absolve you from your sins, says the young priest half a hundred years ago, with hand raised in blessing. I absolve you from your sins today, the same voice quavers and the hand is frail. Yet it is the same. Time cannot wither that “I” which is as the breath of God. He said, `I am the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end.’ He then, is the priest's alpha and omega and all that is in-between. There is no denying this mysterious and mystical fact. God, in Jesus Christ, is in His priest, and the priest, another Christ, is in God."
On the occasion, then, let us all give to our priests, but particularly to our jubilarians, the precious gift of our prayers, perhaps in the old trite verse:
Keep them, we pray Thee, dearest Lord
Keep them for they are Thine
Thy priests whose lives burn out
Before Thy consecrated shrine.
Keep them and O remember Lord,
They have no one but Thee
Yet they have only human hearts
With human frailty.
Many years ago, Eddie Doherty, the husband of Catherine, the Baroness de Hueck, Catherine Doherty, received a letter and it had a simple question, "What is a priest?"
He puzzled over the question, and then went to see his wife who was typing at a desk across the hallway. "Someone asked me," he said to her, "what is a priest? What should I say?"
Without saying a word, she picked up a pencil and wrote on a piece of scrap paper this:
“A priest is a lover of God. A priest is a lover of mankind. A priest is a holy man because he walks before the face of the All-holy. A priest understands all things, forgives all things, encompasses all things. The heart of a priest is pierced like Christ's with the lance of love. The heart of a priest is opened like Christ's for the whole world to walk through. The heart of a priest is a vessel of compassion, a chalice of love, a trysting place of human and divine love. A priest is a man who is another Christ, and whose goal it is to be evermore another Christ. A priest is a man who lives to serve. A priest is a man who has crucified himself so that he too may be lifted up and draw all things to Christ. A priest is a man in love with God. A priest is the gift of God to man, and of man to God. A priest is the symbol of the Word made Flesh. A priest is the naked sword of God's justice. A priest is the hand of God's mercy. A priest is the reflection of God's love. Nothing can be greater in this world than a priest; nothing that is, except God Himself.”
“No man may take this honor to himself, but only he may take it who is called by God as Aaron was.” Amen, and again Amen.