One vivid sign, one symbolic gesture, lies at the heart of this ceremony of Episcopal Ordination. In a few moments, I will anoint Canon David with the Oil of Chrism. I will pour it onto his head, in an action dedicating him entirely to the service of Christ, and his Church, as a bishop. That outward sign, along with the other accompanying signs, points to and brings about the hidden action of the Holy Spirit.
Anointing with Chrism evokes powerful images and resonates with ancient meaning. In the Book of Exodus, Moses is instructed by God how to mix the oil of Chrism and told ‘you must hold this Chrism holy from generation to generation’ (Ex 31.31) The head of Aaron, and every High Priest after him, is anointed with Chrism. In the Book of Samuel we read of the anointing of the young David, son of Jesse, who is to be King in a line and inheritance which reaches to Jesus himself. As Samuel anoints David, ‘the spirit of the Lord seized David and stayed with him from that day on.’ (1 Sam 16.13) Each of these anointings is the action of God, reaching out to make a person his own, to seal and empower that person for a particular role and service.
The role and service which this David is to fulfil is made clear in the prayer which accompanies the anointing. We pray for ‘the governing Spirit’, the spirit that enabled the apostles of Jesus to establish the Church; we pray that David will be ‘a shepherd to your holy flock’; we pray that the Holy Spirit to enable him ‘to assign ministries as you, Lord, have decreed and to loose every bond, by the authority which you have given.’ This is a powerful anointing, binding David more closely to Christ, the Head and High Priest of his body, the Church.
Of course, this is not the first time David has been anointed with Chrism. That first anointing took place at his baptism. And today’s anointing only takes place because of the first. For it was at baptism that David was first bonded to Christ. That was the moment in which he came to share in the life of Our Lord, in which the fracture in his nature, that original sin, was first mended.
And we, too, have been baptised. At that moment all the baptised are reborn and hear these words: ‘God has freed you from all sin and given you new birth by water and the holy Spirit and welcomed you into his holy people. He now anoints you with the Chrism of salvation. As Christ was anointed Priest, Prophet and King, so may you live always as a member of his holy body.’ These are words for all of us to recall today.
At Confirmation David was again anointed, on his forehead, with the same Chrism. The words, then, were different: ‘Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.’ And that gift was precisely all that he needed to live the life of a disciple of Christ as a growing young man: wisdom and understanding, right judgement and courage, knowledge and reverence, wonder and awe before the Lord.’
In these first anointing, the foundations of his adult life, his vocation from the Lord, were being laid down. And if that is true for him, it is true for each one of the baptised, each one of the confirmed. Today, as we offer this prayer of anointing, let us renew in ourselves the grace of our baptism and confirmation. Refresh with yourself a sense of joyful discipleship, a willing following of Jesus, Our Lord.
Then, on the 14 March 1970 David was again anointed. This time the Chrism was poured on his hands and through that outward action and the further gift of the Holy Spirit he became a priest and a fellow worker with his bishop. On that day his vocation in life, given by the Lord, sprang into action with his preaching of the Gospel, his offering of the sacrifice of the Mass and his care of the people. Today all of us priests gathered here can renew in ourselves the sense of purpose of that priestly anointing. That call is expressed in these words: ‘that the words of the Gospel may reach the ends of the earth and the family of nations, made one in Christ, may become God’s one, holy people.’
All these anointings with Chrism are a golden thread in the life of the Church. Through that action, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, we are given our new identity. These anointings bind us together as the Church because they bind us to Christ. In the symbol of Chrism, from which the name Christ is drawn, we see our deepest reality. We are his anointed people. That is who we are, above and beyond every other identity that comes with race, culture, family history, success or failure. Within this company, and on this basis, does a bishop find his role and the service he is called to give: to be a shepherd, to keep watch, to hold together the holy people of God. As the anointed people of God we receive and welcome our new bishop today.
These anointings with Chrism provide an answer to a question that often poses itself in our minds, sometimes in a profound and disturbing way, sometimes more fleetingly in a passing moment of anxiety. The question may well have risen in David’s mind this morning, too: ‘What on earth am I doing here?’
The fact that we have been anointed with Chrism answers that question. Indeed, the action of anointing, at our baptism and confirmation, and at ordination, accompanies and fulfils the words we have just heard, from the Letter to the Ephesians: ‘Before the world was made, he chose us, chose us in Christ, to live through love in his presence.
‘In him we were claimed as God’s own, chosen from the beginning, chosen to be the people who would put their hopes in Christ.’
These words are spoken to each of us personally, in the depth of our being. These words, and the anointings we have received, answer our hidden yet enduring uncertainty and give us the confidence that only faith can provide. They uncover for each of us that ‘predetermined plan of God’ in which each of us has a part to play, each of us a vocation that comes to us from the Lord, to be worked out in every aspect of our daily lives. No longer do we stay locked into uncertainty, but, at the deepest level, we are given a sure foundation, a clear identity, on which we can build and grow into all that God has planned for each one of us. As youngsters we ask God to let us know the plan, the vocation he has for us. As adults, married, single, religious, deacons, priests – and bishops – we seek perseverance and a new generosity of heart in fulfilling God’s desires.
Today, in a special way, we see and rejoice in how these words apply to Mary. Such was her unique role, her vocation, that, as preparation for it, she was preserved from every stain of sin from the first moment of her being. This was the power of God’s choice of Mary to be the Mother of Christ. This was her ‘anointing’, but it reached back to the very origin of her being, beyond the reach of our outward signs.
Yet that election needed its acceptance in time, just as God’s plan for each of us requires our co-operation. The Gospel we have heard describes for us the acceptance by Mary of God’s will. It describes a scene that has been stamped on our imagination by so many wonderful paintings of the Annunciation, depictions of the Angel, the messenger of the Father, the hovering presence of the Holy Spirit, and the recipient Mary, teaching us, with her sublime words, all we need to know for our own vocation: ‘I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let what you have said be done to me.’
In a very real way we compose our own picture of that scene here today. Here is the action of the Father, here the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit. Here, too, is the willing disciple echoing in his heart those same words.
In acceptance of her calling, Mary made herself totally available to be the home of the living Word of God. Her very body was to become its Temple. The Eternal Word was to receive her flesh so that He might be among us, as one of us, sharing our humanity without laying aside his divinity. That was the great mystery being brought about in her.
And something very similar takes place here today. The Book of the Gospels, in the recusant Brailles Bible, is held over David’s head at the moment of our solemn prayer. In this we ask that he too will become, ever more completely, the dwelling place of God’s holy Word and that through his continuing study, writing and speech, that Word will take on new freshness for us all.
As a bishop David will break open for us the saving Word of God even more powerfully that he has done so as a priest. This Word will summon us afresh to a constant and willing praise of God our Father, to a pattern of daily prayer, and to a deeper compassion for all in need, especially those who otherwise lie forgotten, the lowly and broken children of our loving Father. This is the fruit of the gift of the Spirit for which today we pray at this ordination on this feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, the Mother of God.
Today we thank God for the gift of this new bishop in the Church and in this Diocese. We thank God for the anointings which have shaped his life and we ask that this outpouring of the Holy Spirit today will strengthen him all the days of his life, now to be given, willingly, to the service of Christ in the office of bishop. David, may the Lord bless and strengthen you now and always. Amen.
Homily as given by the Most Reverend Vincent Nichols Archbishop of Birmingham.