Locked away in the vestry safe at Barnard Castle are three small vials of oil. This is not the oil that you would put on your bicycle chain, nor is it the vicar’s secret stash should the war in Ukraine deprive us of stocks of sunflower oil. No, this is olive oil. You could cook with it I suppose though it has been heavily scented so that might not be a good idea. Each of the three vials is marked out for a different purpose. One is the oil of baptism. One is for the anointing of those who are sick. The third is called the ‘oil of chrism’. You can’t buy this oil. Each year, on Maundy Thursday up at the Cathedral the Bishop at the Chrism Eucharist sets aside three large flagons of oil for their separate purposes and parishes draw their supplies from these.
Being anointed with oil has a long tradition within the practice of our faith – prophets, priests and kings are all anointed in the Old Testament, Jesus in the New – but, for older generations of Anglicans, anointing might smack of being ‘High Church’ – something our Roman Catholic friends do (and many of us might have heard of the oil for anointing as part of ‘the last rites’) – but which didn’t used to happen. Certainly, I didn’t start using the oil of baptism until about 25 years ago- it had not featured in the parishes where I have served before then.
It’s the chrism oil I’d like to focus on today. The oil for the anointing of the sick speaks for itself – pre-covid at Barney we had started offering anointing for those who wished at some of our services. We didn’t make a song or dance about it – people received communion and then, if they wished we would say a short prayer with them for healing and anoint their head and hands. I was surprised by the number of people who desired this: a physical expression of openness to God and of humbly asking for his grace to face illness…or an upcoming diagnosis or series of treatments.
The oil of baptism has a chequered past: some see it as anointing for the Christian struggle – akin to the oil an athlete in ancient times might massage into their bodies before a race or competition. Others see this oil as a sign of God’s blessing: both make sense in the baptism rite.
But Chrism oil? It’s not used as frequently. It makes an appearance at confirmation services and ordinations – candidates are anointed by the Bishop. It can be used on people but also on things. I will always remember visiting Salisbury cathedral and seeing the magnificent new font, overflowing with water, that is placed at the west end of the cathedral and then noticing the mark of the cross still present on the stone, made in oil by Archbishop Rowan Williams when the font was dedicated. Chrism is used to set people or things aside for God’s purposes. It was used to anoint our Queen.
The Queen’s Jubilee falls across this Pentecost weekend. Whilst she became Queen 70 years ago upon the death of her father it would be another year before she was crowned. Our peculiar ‘non- constitution’ marries together the hereditary nature of monarchy with the requirement that the monarch be anointed by the church (there are a whole host of medieval conflicts between church and state buried in that sentence) and acclaimed by the people: we hold together in a rather precarious balance the rights and privileges of monarchy with the democratic insight that authority must be given and recognised by the people, not taken by leaders.
Before Elizabeth II was crowned and before she received the symbols of state – the orb and the sceptre – she was anointed with chrism oil: set apart, under God, for a particular task. She was set apart for service as our Queen, the Head of the Commonwealth and Supreme Governor of the Church of England. She was set apart for service: our Christian heritage being absolutely clear that power and authority rest in the service of others, not in ‘lording it over others’. It is well known that this was not a role that she expected to carry. It is also well known that the task came to her far sooner than she would have hoped. As we celebrate this weekend, we are able to do so knowing that she gave herself to this role wholeheartedly and has, to the best of her ability, kept the promises she made to the nation all those years ago.
As we salute the Queen’s example however we are also challenged to consider our own service of God and neighbour. Her Majesty’s faith has been central to how she has fulfilled her calling. She is of a generation for whom faith and its practice is undemonstrative (even reserved) but no less real for that. Each of us here responds to Christ’s call differently. Each of us has a vocation to live out as best we are able. Each and every Christian has been anointed by God’s Holy Spirit, commissioned to bear witness to the life of God in the places where we are set. For some that anointing will have involved oil of chrism – just as it did for Her Majesty. Whether anointing happened physically or not, for all of us it is a spiritual reality: for we are Christians. We follow ‘the Christ’ – the word Christ actually means ‘the anointed one’ and he shares his blessing with us, pouring out His Spirit on the Day of Pentecost and continuing to do so as we follow Him day by day. It is His anointing of each and every Christian that enables us to bear witness to him in our lives (as our characters are shaped to reflect His) and through our actions (as we become His hands and feet in the world).
We too are set apart for God’s purposes. We have been blessed with the example of Her Majesty the Queen but she, like us, owes her allegiance to a higher and greater Lord. We honour Him as parents and children. We seek to honour Him in our closest and dearest relationships with our husband or wife, with our partners. We honour Him in our work and leisure, in our homes and wider communities. We honour Him in our engagement with the small and the great, the great issues of the day and the mundane matters of ordinary life. He pours out His blessing on all flesh to renew the face of the earth. His anointing is generous and unstinting – ‘he anoints my head with oil and my cup shall be full’ says the psalm– there is no holding back as far as God is concerned. For we are His people. The apostle Peter calls us a ‘royal priesthood’: doubly anointed as priests and kings to declare the mighty acts of God and minister justice within our communities in His name.
Her Majesty the Queen continues to live out her calling faithfully and diligently in good times and bad. But what about us? For there is no greater calling than to follow Jesus, the anointed One, and to serve Him in the power of His Spirit all our days.
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