Holy Week is filled with many of the most important religious and cultural traditions of our Faith. These include the washing of the feet on Holy Thursday, the Stations and the Veneration of the Cross on Good Friday, the Blessing of Food on Holy Saturday, and the lighting of the Paschal Candle at the Vigil Mass at Easter.
All of these events and more occur during what is known as the Easter Triduum. This three day period is described in the Catechism of the Catholic Church as the celebration of the Paschal Mystery that concludes the Season of Lent. Our on-site liturgical expert Jim Brennan ’85 refers to the Triduum as “hyper-Lent,” and for good reason. All of what Lent entails is distilled into these three most important days of the Liturgical Year.
But there is one liturgy, essential for the administering of sacraments throughout the year, which occurs just prior to the beginning of the Triduum, usually on the morning of Holy Thursday. Without this liturgy there could be no baptisms, confirmations, ordinations, or anointing of the sick. No altar could be anointed and no church could be dedicated. Without the celebration of the yearly Chrism Mass at the cathedral of each diocese around the world the sacramental life of the Church would come to a virtual stand-still.
Three separate holy oils are blessed at this Mass, and each has a specific purpose within the liturgical life of the Church. At the end of the Eucharistic Prayer the Oil of the Sick is blessed, and is to be used throughout the year during the administration of the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. After communion, the Oil of Catecheumens is blessed. A catecheumen is a person who is preparing to be brought into the Church through the Sacrament of Baptism. At the beginning of the baptismal ceremony this oil is used to bless the baptismal candidate.
Finally, also after communion, the Sacred Chrism is consecrated. The bishop mixes the oil with an aromatic liquid, usually balsam, and then consecrates it by breathing into the vessel and offering the prayer of consecration. This Sacred Chrism is used for those sacraments that imprint an indelible mark on the soul of the recipient, and thus these sacraments – Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Orders – can never be repeated and their character can never be removed.
Despite the monumental importance of the Chrism Mass most people, including myself, have never attended or participated in it. The fact that it occurs only once each year in any given diocese and only in the cathedral does keep most people from attending. Also, this liturgy is primarily for the bishop and his priests. As Bl. Pope Paul VI stated when he restored the ancient ritual, “The Chrism Mass is one of the principal expressions of the fullness of the bishop’s priesthood and signifies the closeness of the priests with him.”
As a sign of this closeness, after the homily each priest in the cathedral renews his commitment to his priestly service. They are asked several questions by the bishop, and their proper response to each question is “I am.” These questions are specific to their duties as priests, their administering of the sacraments, their work with and devotion to their parishoners, yet there is one question that is striking in its universal application to all Catholics:
“Are you resolved to unite yourselves more closely to Christ and to try to become more like Him by joyfully sacrificing your own pleasure and ambition to bring His peace and love to your brothers and sisters?”
If there is one question that each Catholic must be able to answer in the affirmative, it is this one. In that question is embedded the entirety of the Christian vocation: unity with Christ, joyful sacrifice, humility, love of neighbor.
The strength to live out the “I am” that this question elicits has been given not just to the ordained, but to all who are fully initiated into the Church through the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist, all who have been consecrated with the Sacred Chrism.
So as each diocese in the world celebrates the yearly Chrism Mass, let us pray for all of the Church. Let us pray for our deacons, priests and bishops. Let us pray for those who will be fully initiated into the Church at the Easter Vigil. Let us pray for those who are discerning the call to full participation. And let us pray for all of the laity – fully consecrated into the life of Christ and His Church – that we may have the courage to stay resolved in our commitment to the Crucified and Risen Lord.