It's the evening of Whitsunday as we reflect, laptops open, on the gift of the Holy Spirit. At church this morning the stoles, banners, and frontal were red. So was the chasuble, and so were neckties and shirts all through the congregation. The hymns were spirited as is meet and right on such a day: Salve festa dies, Down Ampney, Albany. The afternoon since has been full of reminders of the Person from whom
In our part of the Church, which has not been much touched by the powerful recent movements of charismatic renewal and pentecostalist spirituality, these bright signs of colour and music are indications that we are about as excited as we can be. We are a fine example of what Max Weber called the routinization of charisma.
We have reflected today about just how we receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit in a tradition that is not as pneumatologically expressive as some others. Though we do not most of us speak in tongues other than those that can be learned through careful study or natural childhood acquisition, we do give the largest season of the liturgical year over to the Lord and Giver of Life. Every page of our prayer books and hymnals is peppered (or salted and lighted, which is probably more accurate) with the Holy Spirit.
But it is in chrism that we receive charisms in the most tactile and sacramental ways. The oil of gladness is the set conveyance of our assured ways of receiving the Holy Spirit: in baptism, in confirmation, in ordination, in strengthening prayer when we are ill. In each of these outward signs and many related church ceremonies, it is oil—and often oil in some connection with water—through which we meet God. Oil marks our new birth, new strength, new work, and new gifts.
Most of us today do not, however, think of the oleum lætitiæ when we hear about oil. We think of dollars per barrel, heating crises, the Exxon Valdez, tar sands, Torrey Canyon, refineries, New Carissa—and, most recently, Deepwater Horizon. Oil in our fossil-fuel economy is a source of many things, but not usually of unalloyed spiritual gladness. In connection with water especially, oil almost always makes us think of blame rather than balm. Our need for oil feeds conflict. Our perilous mistakes in gathering oil poison the earth and our bodies. Our economies and our governments are for now at least ineluctably in thrall to oil.
This could easily lead to a kind of sacramental dissonance when it comes to chrism, breaking our ability to know the Spirit's gladdening, strengthening, vivifying power when they are mentioned in the same breath as the damaged word 'oil'.
In this as in so much else, though, we take refuge in the knowledge that abusus non tollit usum—that the misuse of a thing does not abolish the right use of the same thing. In sacramental Christianity, God makes divine gifts for us out of the material world: the bread and wine made holy food for us in Holy Communion; wood and paint transformed into icons by the work of human hands; a tomb broken apart to become the door into life death cannot break; and even—in a mystery that unmoors our economic obsession with petroleum—oil into joy infused with the Holy Spirit.
This is a strange contradiction in the modern world, perhaps even horrific to many of us, but nonetheless in some way as powerfully true as that ancient scandalous contradiction of the cross, the
Trees and life. Wind and the Spirit's breath. Oil and gladness. With God, such natural things can become supernatural signs of transformation, love, and comfort. And that is very Good News.
Happy Whitsunday, dear friends. See you next week.
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