There is something really important for us here as we begin Lent this next Wednesday. Lent has everything to do with anointing. To anoint someone is to place oil on their head or some other part of their body. It was a common practice is Israel, for example to designate a king. The elders poured oil over his head and let flow over his entire body. He was anointed, set apart. We'll see a remnant of that anointing at our Easter Vigil on April 11. After the adults and children are baptized, they (and all the previously baptized candidates) will be anointed with oil on their forehead. "Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit." That is the sacrament of confirmation. And before that, as a preparation for their baptism, they will be anointed on heart with oil of catechumens. Like Saul, like David himself, they become the Lord's anointed.
I heard a little story which brought home to me, the reverence we should have for a person who is anointed. In this case for a priest. Besides being anointed in baptism and confirmation a priest's hands are anointed with chrism on the day of his ordination. Well, once St. Francis of Assisi was passing through a village preaching the Gospel. The townspeople told him, "our priest is very bad. Please go and rebuke him." Francis went to that priest, but instead of condemning him, Francis knelt down in front of him, asked him for a blessing. "Father, make the sign of the cross over me and place your hands on my head." The priest did it, but his hands were trembling--and he changed his life.
St. Francis knew the reverence we should have for someone anointed by the Lord. We need that reverence in our parish, our families and our homes. Think of what it would mean to our married couples. But we have a problem here. A priest who has been working many years in the marriage tribunal pointed out something which really made me think. He has reviewed case after case of marriages that have failed and are seeking an anulment. He said that one of his concerns is that in so many of our marriages either one or both are not confirmed. They did not receive the sacrament of confirmation. There is something about that anointing in confirmation.
I have to admit I am concerned that the majority of our young people are not receiving the sacrament of confirmation. We should be praying about that during Lent. We are accompanying a good-size group of adults, teenagers and children who will be confirmed at the Easter Vigil. But we also need to pray for those who have not yet come forward for this sacrament.
Receiving the anointing of the Lord and reverencing those who have been anointed ties in with what Jesus tells us today about the kind of love we should have. It's interesting that in the Gospels, Jesus never says to "love everybody." It might be implied but you won't find the phrase, "love all people." What Jesus does say is much more concrete: "love your neighbor," and "love your enemy." As G.K. Chesterton pointed out: They are the same person!
When I gave the example of St. Francis kneeling down before a priest and asking his blessing, you may have thought I was being self-serving. Just the opposite. The hardest person for me to love is my brother priest. Even tho he is my best friend--or perhaps because he is my best friend, he can hurt me in a way no one else ever could. Sometimes what enables me to really love my brother is knowing he has been anointed by the Lord. "Love your enemies," Jesus says. "Do good to those who harm you."
Fr. James Walsh, the founder of Maryknoll, expressed this challenge real clearly. When he was sending our the first missionary priests to China, he told them: "You are going to a foreign land. Some of you will never return to America. The greatest difficulty facing you will not be adjusting to new customs and new food. It will not be learning a new language. Nor will it be the separating from your family and loved ones here. Your greatest challenge will be getting along with your brother missionary."
So it is for all of us. The hardest person to love is the one nearest us. This doesn't mean we have no obligation to "love" Sadam Husein and the people of Iraq. Our Holy Father has reminded us they are created in God's image and he has pleaded that they not be bombed or strangled economically. As Catholics we take the pope's word very seriously. Still for most of us, our immediate problem is not Iraq, but much closer to home. The "enemy" Jesus wants us to love is very near at hand.
To really love our neighbor, especially when that person comes across as our enemy, we need a certain purification. That's what the season of Lent is about--and it begins this Wednesday when we receive the ashes on our foreheads. "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return." Lenten purification involves three practices: fasting, prayer and almsgiving. Church discipline calls us to abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and the seven Fridays of Lent. That can be an occasion when we not only deny ourselves something, but give a witness to our faith. In Holy Family Parish we'll have special opportunity for prayer--adoration of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament on Wednesdays and nocturnal adoration on Friday nites. (I'll explain more at the announcement time.) The third penitential practice of Lent is almsgiving. This is symbolized by the Rice Bowls which we ask you to take today and place on your dinner tables. More on this at the end of Mass.
If, like me, you struggle with love of neighbor, you need this time of Lent. Please use it well.
From Archives (Homilies for Seventh Sunday, Year C):