Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Function of Unction

From the beauty of all these liturgical things, which is not so much about trappings and fine fabrics than about the glory of our God resplendent in his people, alive and strengthened, we turn now to a consideration of activity, action. The precious oil which anoints the head of Aaron does more than simply lend fragrance to his person; it overflows down to “the edges”. The Lord will say this clearly: his anointing is meant for the poor, prisoners and the sick, for those who are sorrowing and alone.

My dear brothers, the ointment is not intended just to make us fragrant, much less to be kept in a jar, for then it would become rancid … and the heart bitter.

 A good priest can be recognized by the way his people are anointed: this is a clear proof. When our people are anointed with the oil of gladness, it is obvious: for example, when they leave Mass looking as if they have heard good news.

Our people like to hear the Gospel preached with “unction”, they like it when the Gospel we preach touches their daily lives, when it runs down like the oil of Aaron to the edges of reality, when it brings light to moments of extreme darkness, to the “outskirts” where people of faith are most exposed to the onslaught of those who want to tear down their faith. People thank us because they feel that we have prayed over the realities of their everyday lives, their troubles, their joys, their burdens and their hopes.

And when they feel that the fragrance of the Anointed One, of Christ, has come to them through us, they feel encouraged to entrust to us everything they want to bring before the Lord: “Pray for me, Father, because I have this problem”, “Bless me Father”, “Pray for me” – these words are the sign that the anointing has flowed down to the edges of the robe, for it has turned into a prayer of supplication, the supplication of the People of God.

Pope Francis, Homily, Chrism Mass, March 28, 2013

Reflection – ‘Preach the Gospel with unction!’ This is a turn of phrase that I admit I had never heard before this homily. And yet, once heard, it is such an obvious and clear point, and so clearly necessary.
We can be brilliant speakers, or witty charmers, or lofty intellectuals (or at least some of us can), but all of that is of little importance, really, in terms of the missionary task of the Church. One of our holy elder Madonna House priests was, in fact, a very eloquent homilist and a good teacher, but when people would compliment him on a homily he would simply say, ‘Yes, but did it convert you?’

There’s the rub, eh? For those of us who may have some degree of verbal facility, we quickly learn that words are just words and the world is full of words. Words alone can pass over, go around and through people without leaving much of a mark. More and more I am seeing that it’s the unction that matters – the docility to the Holy Spirit, the letting him have his way with us in all things. That’s the only thing that makes our lives fruitful, that converts or consoles or strengthens or changes people.

And as with priests and preaching, so with all of us and whatever way of serving we have. Words have a particular quality of uselessness, I must say, if they are not coming out of an anointed place. At least a person fed a well-cooked meal or a sick person being nursed receive and possess a certain concrete good. Empty words may as well go unsaid.

But even these concrete goods can be anointed by God to serve a higher purpose – the well-fed person who touches something of the generous love of God, the sick person who comes into an encounter with the Healer of souls. And it is this anointing that is meant to be upon all of our works and words. Without it, life does become a rather empty affair, eventually. With it, even our less-than-eloquent words and our not-so-perfectly cooked meals are imbued with love and with grace.

So, we have to pray for this anointing, and ask for it with great humility of heart and persistent longing. Knowing that God wants nothing more than to give it to us and to make our lives conduits of his life and love for the world.

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