Bishop Marshall’s Chrism Mass Homily

Chrism Mass 2024

St. Francis Xavier Cathedral – March 26, 2024

Most Reverend Robert W. Marshall, Jr., Bishop of Alexandria

     It is good to see so many of the students of our Catholic schools here today.  As I look around, it reminds me of my own time in Catholic schools – a few years ago.  I still have the memories.  If I asked the question, “Why did God make you?” for example, most of us of a certain age would answer, “God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world and to be happy with Him forever in the next.”  That was the answer that we memorized from the Baltimore Catechism, and – short and concise as it is – that answer contains a number of profound truths.  First, human beings did not just happen, do not just happen.  We are created out of love by our all-powerful God.  He made us to know Him – yes, by our observations and experiences, but more importantly, through his self-revelation in Scripture and throughout human history and especially through the Incarnation, when the eternal Son of God became one of us in the person of Jesus Christ.  We were created not as an experiment, not constructed as a doll house or a model train set.  No, we were created in love to return God’s love, to develop and maintain a relationship with the living God that will survive death, a love that will be immortal, eternal.  Yes, that is how Catholics of my generation would have described our connection to the one, true God.  I suspect that if you asked the same question of people today, you might get a question in return, “Who or what is God?” or you might get challenged, “God didn’t make me, my parents did or a fertility clinic did.”  You will likely also hear that the person has no intention of serving God.  If they believe in God at all, then it is as a granter of wishes, not as our creator and source of life.

Yes, the times have changed.  The basic Christian frame of reference that shaped most of our lives is largely absent from today’s world.  In its place is a world that sees not God but the human person at its center – apparently, we humans largely created ourselves, and if there is a god, then we set the parameters, the limits for that god’s involvement in our lives.  This world’s god is made in our image and likeness, we are not made in his.  Evil, these days, comes from outside – we humans are born perfect and it is the structures and follies of the past that can corrupt us – including, apparently, any organized religion.   Our answer from the Baltimore Catechism would puzzle many people today – and would offend others both because we speak of God as more powerful than humans, and of course, because we refer to God with singular masculine pronouns.

In our gospel today, we find Jesus in the synagogue of his hometown of Nazareth.  As he had probably done hundreds of times before, Jesus was called forward to read from the Scriptures, from either the law or the prophets – in this case from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.  Jesus turned to the passage that we also heard in our first reading.  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me,” Jesus reads.  Those gathered in the synagogue were well familiar with this passage and probably noted that Jesus read very well.  They were not surprised by the words of the prophet – indeed, they may have been comforted by Isaiah’s words – the promise of a Messiah who would put an end to the suffering and oppression of the present age.  But when, after putting aside the scroll, Jesus added, “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing,” you can almost hear the murmuring – this is the carpenter’s son, who is HE to fulfill this passage?  We long for a Messiah, but this tradesman, this local kid, this nobody cannot be the one.  Of course, if Jesus stood up and read the same passage in modern times, there would also be murmuring, but the gossip might be substantially different these days.  The present generations would likely cheer that there was to be such significant progress in science to permit the blind to see, and such significant progress in domestic and international relations to permit captives to be liberated and the oppressed to experience freedom.  They might also rejoice that glad tidings were to be proclaimed to the poor – but they would also demand the reverse – condemnation or cancellation of those rich and powerful people who disagree with them.  What would aggravate them, I suggest, is that Jesus seems to claim some sort of privileged status – that he could bring about all of these things by virtue of an anointing by an imaginary Spirit.  My spirit – if it exists – is just as good as yours, they would add.

Brothers and sisters, as has been said before, we live not in an epoch of change but in a change of epoch.  The framework, the narrative, the imagination that dominated Western civilization for the past two millennia has been gradually shifting for the past three hundred and fifty years.  Today, we can state with certainty that the change is largely complete.  The world view that emerged from the ashes of the First and Second World Wars has been virtually abandoned in favor of an unrealistic hope of an earthly utopia constructed, not by God, but entirely by humans with technical knowledge, but with – at best – a vague spirituality and almost no connection to the God who created us and loves us and sustains us.

As we gather during Holy Week for this Chrism Mass, as we prepare to bless the oils that will be used in four of our seven sacraments, as we priests prepare to reaffirm the promises made at our ordination, we seek an outpouring of the Holy Spirit who is largely unknown to our present society.  We seek to proclaim glad tidings to a world whose inhabitants no longer listen and who have forsaken happiness for a life of despair.  Yes, our world is substantially different but human nature remains unchanged.  Humans beings may flounder longer, looking for eternal wisdom where only temporary information can be found, seeking comfort and consolation where only fleeting pleasure exists, longing for wealth and power but eventually realizing that we have but a weak and impoverished world.  The human mind will be trapped in the mundane, and the human heart will continue – in the words of St. Augustine – to be restless until it rests in God.

Our challenge, therefore, is to help our brothers and sisters to realize that the evil they seek to remove from the larger world will never be eradicated until it is crowded out and replaced in their heart and in every human heart by the overwhelming love of God.  Healing that is foolishly sought through chemical and surgical promises of perpetual youth and gender re-assignment and genetically perfect children can only truly be found in a profound encounter (dare we say, surrender) to the Divine Physician, to the Creator who made us to know and love and serve Him and who offers us eternal happiness.  The hope that is sought in the wasteland of the world wide web can only be found in the person of Jesus Christ.

My brother priests, in many ways we are the ambassadors of these glad tidings, we are the emissaries of the healing and hope that Christ offers.  By our faithful celebration of the sacraments we bring the real presence of Christ to the doubting and the downtrodden.  By the example of our lives of prayer and sacrifice, we offer encouragement to the fallen and the forgotten.  Through our encounters with the living God we offer the road map, the promise, the hope that Christ offers each and every person – even those who refuse to acknowledge or accept him.  Our task, I suggest to you, is different from in the past.  We inherited a church of buildings and structures and institutions which millions would seek and to which thousands would come.  Our task was to maintain and preserve those structures and welcome those who knocked on our doors.  Today, many of our institutions are abandoned and our structures are ignored.  Our task today is to re-connect and rebuild – not the buildings or the structures themselves – but to forge a path for God into each and every human heart – often one heart at a time.  We are the ones who must figuratively and literally knock on doors.  Our proclamation of glad tidings that in the past may have taken place in homilies and classrooms may now more frequently occur in one-to-one conversations.  Our message of healing and hope may reach others more effectively if those to whom we minister can clearly see by the witness of our lives that each of us has found healing and hope in Jesus Christ.  And we must educate and encourage our brothers and sisters in faith to join us in this mission of evangelization.  Yes, we live in a change of epoch, but we know and love and serve a compassionate and merciful God who is real and alive and unchanging, ever faithful and ever new.

This change of epoch can be unsettling, indeed frightening.  We can become overwhelmed by the task if we priests, we humans imagine that we shoulder this burden alone.  Listen again to the words of Sacred Scripture: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me because the Lord has anointed me.”  Recall that the Church was not born at the first Christmas – though the Incarnation is the pivotal moment in human history.  The Church was not born on Holy Thursday or Good Friday or Easter Sunday, as important as the Paschal Mystery is to our salvation.  The Church was not born when Christ ascended to the Father.  Rather, we trace the birth of the Church to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.  The Spirit that had anointed Jesus also descended on those frightened disciples gathered in the Upper Room wondering how they could go forward without Jesus himself walking among them.  Sisters and brothers, the Spirit of God has not left the Church, has not abandoned the Vicar of Christ, has not forsaken the people of God.  We cannot, we dare not, wring our hands in despair of either the Spirit’s absence or the enormity of the mission.  Yes, from time to time we may find ourselves frightened by the task ahead just as were the first disciples.  But we must be encouraged and sustained by the Spirit of the living God who enabled and empowered the early Church and by whose wisdom and understanding, by whose courage and fortitude, we are emboldened to go forth to proclaim glad tidings, to offer healing and compassion, and to live in hope.