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Apse of the duomo of Pisa

Apse of the duomo of Pisa

On or about Holy Thursday each year the diocesan bishop celebrates what is known as the ‘Chrism Mass’, during which the oils to be used in the celebration of the sacraments in the coming year are blessed or consecrated. The oil of the sick used when a person is seriously ill or dying, and the oil of catechumens used in the rites associated with the sacrament of Holy Baptism, are both blessed, whilst the oil of Chrism is consecrated; the bishop breathing into the oil and mixing with it a sweet-smelling perfume called balsam. This consecration, or setting-aside, is significant because the oil of Chrism signifies the royal dignity in which Christians share by their incorporation into Christ; the one whose very name means ‘anointed’.

The oil of Chrism is used in the anointing of monarchs at their coronation, and is poured onto the hands of those ordained to the Sacred Priesthood and the heads of those to be ordained as bishops. This represents one of the three characteristics of ministry in the Christian Church: that of governance. The bishop is anointed in the same way as King David in the Old Testament, and the priest shares in that office—his hands being set apart for the work of sacrifice and service on behalf of his bishop. Importantly, however, it is also this oil that is used in the administration of baptism, together with the oil of catechumens, and so as all Christians are incorporated into Christ through the waters of the font, by extension they also share in his threefold office of priest, prophet, and king (CCC 1547).

It is that royal dignity that we celebrate in the solemnity known as ‘Christ the King’. Today we do not commemorate earthly thrones and powers, but heavenly. Christ, who has conquered death itself, is the Lord of all time and eternity and so the Church honours him in this feast with the title ‘Universal King’. His dignity, which we share through baptism, exceeds that of all human institutions and temporal authority put together. Indeed as the reading from the first epistle of Saint Paul to the Corinthians reminds us, Christ will destroy ‘every sovereignty and every authority and power’; not because they are necessarily evil but because they are superfluous to the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 15: 24). When we share in his life through baptism, then, we necessarily become his subjects in order to share also in the fruits of his reign.

This universal kingship of Christ has both a visible and an invisible manifestation. Christ’s kingdom is one in which we participate now by virtue of our baptism, and in which the saints participate more fully by virtue of their sanctification. So the living-out of the innate majestic dignity of our baptism must be something rooted in the way we live our lives on earth, whilst at the same time ordered toward the beatific vision in which we put our hope. We must understand that in order to live most fully the grace given us at the font we must conform ourselves in the ‘here and now’ to the reign of Christ, becoming citizens of the kingdom we pray to come.

This means uniting ourselves ever more closely to Christ our Universal King. In the first place, by living in obedience to him and being willing subjects of his firm but gentle rule. Christ gained his crown through his obedience to his heavenly Father; an obedience which led him to the cross. If we wish to share forever in the crown which the Father has bestowed on his beloved Son, we also must submit ourselves to his will for our lives. Christ freely accepted the crown of thorns and the throne of the cross in order to win victory over death; the Christian is called to embrace that same humility—that self-sacrifice—if he wishes to share in the everlasting kingdom of Christ’s reign.

Secondly, to recognize the royal dignity bestowed on us in baptism does not mean to become a monarch in our own stead, but rather to share in the kingship of Christ. It does not mean that we, as individuals or groups, assert some form of independence as if we have been given a kingdom of our own; rather, it means that we must cling ever more closely to Christ, because the fruit of the majesty we have is nothing without its source. We do not, as it were, have royal blood through our own ancestral line but because we have been washed clean by the blood of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and grafted to him in waters of regeneration.

In order for our baptismal character to be everything that it should be, then, these two ideas—the obedience of Christ and the submission of the self—must become a reality in our lives, and indeed the readings today encourage. We are reminded in the prophecy of Ezekiel, for example, of the figure of the Good Shepherd; so we must learn to be good sheep who hear the voice of the master and respond. We must be obedient to his will for our lives, and recognize the reign he has over our own determination and desire. In the psalm we are reminded of our share in the kingship of Christ: ‘You anoint my head with oil’ (Ps. 23). Still more we are called to ‘dwell in the house of the Lord for years to come’; not our own palaces and thrones, but his  (Ps. 23). And in the gospel we are presented with a foretaste of Christ’s coming-again in glory; a reminder for us of the heavenly citizenship which through union with Christ we already enjoy, and of the hope of eternal life which is offered to those who remain faithful to his commands.

So may this feast renew the grace and promises of our baptism; may we recognize the majestic dignity of the life we share by virtue of our incorporation in Christ in God; and may we see in that the path to our salvation in eternal life, guided by our Shepherd-King ever deeper into the ‘one true fold of the Redeemer’ here in earth, that we may come to reign with him and all the saints in the glories of his eternal kingdom in heaven.