Today's homily at the Chrism Mass
Every year we celebrate the Chrism Mass with the blessing of the oils and the renewal of the promises priests made at our ordination.
This is one of the few cases in which we never change the readings. No matter the year, we always read the same ones.
The Gospel is taken from Luke 4. Having been tempted by Satan in the desert, Jesus goes back to Nazareth where he was brought up. He goes into the synagogue on the Sabbath day. He stood up to read and they handed him the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He read the words we heard in the first reading.
As he finished reading and everyone waits for him to comment on the text, he says one of the shortest homilies ever (well... not true. It was longer than what we heard today): “this text is being fulfilled today even as you listen.”
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The passage is given to us, deacons – priests – bishops, as we are called to renew our promises.
We have been called to “identify” ourselves with Jesus. The Church talks about the priests as “other Jesus” in the midst of the communities.
True that we are not the only ones! The Gospel of Matthew presents other “faces” of Jesus to be aware of... “I was hungry, thirsty, sick, stranger, in prison...” (Whenever you hear us insisting we are Jesus among you, please do remind us of the other presences of Jesus among us so that we do not think it is exclusive to us!)
This makes me think that while the Gospel of Matthew presents that face of Jesus calling us to be “merciful”, today's passage from Luke calls the priests to identify with that Jesus anointed to proclaim good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives and to the blind new sight, to set the downtrodden free, to proclaim the Lord’s year of favour.
The question then is “how did he fulfill the mission he was sent to”?
1. Naturally the first thing that comes to our mind is “by preaching”. One can never underestimate the power of His Word. We listen to it every day or at least every Sunday. We remember it. We reflect on it.
How could one forget parables like the ones of the Good Samaritan, the merciful father...
We, priests, then need to make sure we have words that are powerful, that can strengthen the faith, hope and love of the people and communities entrusted to us.
We might forget this... and we might sometimes not take good care of the words we use when addressing other people or sometimes not prepare well our homilies...
Last November I was presiding a Mass in Mamelodi (Pretoria) and I made a comment about those cases in which we, priests and bishops, do not prepare properly. Someone came after Mass and said... “Thank you bishop for saying that. It is true”. People might not tell us. They might not feel free to tell us. Maybe we do not create those spaces for them to be free with us. Then, they go somewhere else looking for the food they need.
Maybe we ourselves underestimate the power of a word. We know how much a word can hurt, we might forget how much it can heal, encourage, give light...
2. There is a second way in which Jesus did it: his actions. Healing, touching, eating with sinners... I believe we need to reflect more on them.
- Some of his actions had no words. Like on Palm Sunday when he went into Jerusalem on a donkey. No words were spoken. The message was clear.
- I wonder how many times he just sat down among sinners, among people with a bad name, rejected by the society of the time... I always think of the day the apostles saw Jesus calling Levi to follow him. I wonder what face they put? "Why on earth would Jesus call someone like Levi? We might not be perfect but ... Levi!" Or the time he publicly chose to go and eat at Zaccheus place... “He has gone to stay at a sinner's house” some said.
- Think of the moment he touched the sick... particularly the lepers... or the moment when he touched the bier where the only son of a widow was lying dead..
- I wonder how common was to have women among his disciples.
- Think of the times we find Jesus praying. One day it would make the apostles ask him to teach them to pray.
I wonder if our actions have the same power. I wonder if they proclaim a message: good news to the poor! I wonder if they challenge anyone. An old story talks of a bishop who once said: “wherever Jesus went there was a revolution; wherever l go people serve tea!”
If our actions, if our lifestyle does not proclaim good news to the poor or challenge anyone, something must be wrong because we do not live in a Christian society. Enough to think of the daily news of abuse of children, gender violence, corruption, greed, power fighting, women being seen as second class people, human trafficking... We might have many churches (more and more are being built), many pastors (more and more come to us to preach for a few days), many people praying and praising the Lord, many carrying bibles but it does not seem to be transforming people's lives and making our society more human... more “good news to the poor”.
Our attitude towards money, power, gender... should make people wonder... why does this priest do that? If not, we need to understand why, we need to ask ourselves why not...
3. The fact is that Jesus did not just “preach” good news or “did” good things. He was indeed the good news he was preaching. There was no division between what he preached, what he thought and what he did. That is probably why he could say: this word is being fulfilled today even as you listen.
What we are celebrating these days is that HE was the Word he proclaimed (and probably that is why the only way to stop him was getting rid of him).
We need to always remember what we were told at our ordination: “Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.” It does not happen overnight and it is a call to constant conversion in our lives because unless we walk towards it, our message – our lives – will not be meaningful.
Last year at a “Justice and Peace” workshop with priests I shared with them that we should never understand Justice and Peace as something we tell others they should be doing. In other words,
- We cannot expect from anyone: transparency, accountability, respect for the dignity of women, justice, refraining from any type of abuse... unless we lead ourselves by example, unless that is what we do in our daily lives;
- We cannot expect others to be able to dialogue and listen to each other unless we ourselves take the initiative and create those spaces for dialogue and listening to each other in our parishes.
- We cannot expect to do away with the fear that seems to mark our lives in our families, communities, country and world, unless we create spaces of freedom to talk in our own parishes...
- We cannot expect rite relations among people unless the way relate to each other (bishops and priests, priests with other priests, bishops and priests with our lay people) make everyone understand we are led by the Gospel and not by any culture, social media or personal ideas. It should remind people of Jesus saying: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you.” (Mt 20: 25 – 26). We need to always remember that “it shall not be so among you”.
I always fear that the expressions... I have been sent "to bring”, "to proclaim”... could make us forget that first of all, we have been called and sent “to be good news", to be spaces of freedom where people can talk without fear, to be light and hope to those who walk in darkness...
As we renew today our promises, maybe we continue to deepen in the call we have received.
May we thank the Lord for the gift of priesthood and for the gift of the priests serving our diocese.
As Paul says: “I am quite confident tha the One who began a good work in you will go on completing it until the Day of Jesus Christ comes” (Phil 1:6)
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