18 Nov 2020

St. Peter Chanel Church, Berala, 18 November 2020

What a time to be Confirmed! Tonight, our young people complete their initiation into the Christian life, membership of the Church, and the communion of saints. But we gather in the face of a word that’s been on almost everyone’s lips for months now, a word most of us never used and many not even have known until the beginning of this year: pandemic.

The word pandemic comes from the Greek words pan meaning all – as in ‘panorama’ and ‘pandemonium’ – and demos meaning the people – as in ‘demography’ or ‘democratic’. During the Antonine Plague of the 2nd century AD, the great Graeco-Roman physician Galen first used the term pandemic to describe a contagion that threatened all the people.[1] Several waves of what was probably Smallpox claimed about one in ten people’s lives in the Roman empire, an even higher proportion of the army, and an emperor or two.[2] It made our COVID-19 pandemic look like a picnic. Panic spread, so that even the great Galen fled Rome along with many of the well-to-do, corpses were abandoned in the streets, and the survivors left to starve or infect each other.[3] But if the rich and powerful left, the Church stayed behind. Because the Roman empire had no public health authorities or healthcare institutions, it fell to the Christians to fill the void with caritas, a love by which we have known ‘charity’ work ever since, and hospitalitas, a generosity that names our hospitals to this day. Staying to feed, nurse and care pastorally for the sick, the Christians saved thousands, and that in turn inspired many conversions.[4]

They didn’t do it as a numbers drive: they were simply living the message of our epistle (Gal 5:16-25). They’d been taught to ‘crucify’ the fear and self-indulgence that marked their former way of life and demonstrate new spiritual fruits such as patience, kindness and goodness.

When the faithful cared for others during that first pandemic of the Christian era, they brought oil with them. Oil was, of course, essential for cooking and lighting in the ancient world. In those cultures it was also used for anointing as a sign of respect and even of high office: high priests, prophets and kings were anointed,[5] and our word Christ means Anointed One.[6] In the medicine of Galen, as of Hippocrates before him, oil was also used to comfort, massage and cleanse. The early Christians anointed the sick for physical and spiritual healing (Mk 6:13; Jas 5:14).

So tonight, when I anoint our young candidates with the Sacred Chrism, it is a complex sign of the Holy Spirit coming to enlighten and feed, comfort and cleanse, inspiring their Christian vocation as priests, prophets and kings, that is, as the young people of prayer and worship, of truth-seeking and truth-tellers, of leadership and service for our world today. God is coming to each of you with wisdom, courage and other gifts, and not just so you’ll feel good about yourselves….

So why, then? The word pandemic didn’t always refer to a population-wide disease. Before Galen it was used simply to refer to the whole body of people.[7] The philosopher Plato used it when referring to our natural love for humanity.[8] In the Old Testament it was said that “all men sin and fall short of the glory of God” (Gen 6:13 etc.; cf. Rom 3:23) and that “all flesh will perish like grass” (Job 34:15; Isa 40:6; cf. 1Pet 1:24). And yet there was hope, because God was a god “for all people”.[9] “It shall come to pass,” God said through the prophet Joel, “that I will pour out my Spirit upon all the people, so that your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your old people dream dreams and your young people see visions” (Joel 2:28; Acts 2:17).

In the Gospels we hear repeatedly that “all the people” were drawn to Jesus’ teaching (e.g. Mt 13:2; Mk 4:1; Lk 19:48; 21:38; Jn 8:2), that “all the people” were astonished by his miracles (e.g. Mt 12:23; Mk 5:20; Lk 18:43), that “all the people” were directed by Jesus to sit so He could teach and feed them (Mk 6:39-41; 9:15). Jesus’ coming is described as a cause of “joy for all the people” (Lk 2:10; 3:6) and that His return as judgment upon “all the people” (Mt 24:30). So the Jesus-thing, the Holy Spirit thing, is not just for young Sebastian or young Mary MacKillop being confirmed tonight, not just for God’s particular favourites of one tribe or nation, but “for all the people”.

How will God reach all people? Well, Confirmation, we know, is the completion of our initiation into the Church and our sending forth into the world as young Christian adults, so that there might be an epidemic of “love, joy and peace; patience, kindness and goodness; trustfulness, gentleness and self-control.” To achieve that we’ll need each one of our young people to be heroes, anointed as priests, prophets and kings, as evangelists, shepherds and leaders, anointed to plant seeds of faith far and wide, to nurture the seedings with love and, in the words of our Gospel, to bring forth a rich harvest “with a noble and generous heart” (Lk 8:4-15).

Candidates for Confirmation: when I pray over you, anoint you with Holy Oil and say “Be sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit”, know that God is coming to you in a very special way so that you can share Him with the world. You can do this by what you say and do; by learning and praying, coming to Mass and Confession, and doing good things in our world.

Parents, friends and sponsors of our candidates, teachers and catechists, Fr Thomas and parishioners, tonight your young people will receive the anointing of the Holy Spirit. It’s your job to help keep the spiritual gifts alive in them, by encouraging them in lives of Christian faith and practice, of virtue and holiness, of the worship of God and love of all.

A pandemic of faith and hope and love – for all the people – that is the greatest need of our times, and you, my young friends, are the very ones to be its super-spreaders – you, that is, with the help of the Holy Spirit!

[1]    Galen,  Methodus Medendi 17 and elsewhere. The pandemic is also known as the Plague of Galen.

[2]    See Sarah Yeomans, “The Antonine Plague and the spread of Christianity,” Biblical Archaeology Review 43(2) (2017), 22-24 & 66.

[3]     Cf. Sean F. Everton & Robert Schroeder, “Plagues, pagans, and Christianity: differential survival, social networks, and the rise of Christianity,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 58(4) (2019), 775-89 at p. 778.

[4]     Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), p. 86.

[5]     Ex 29:7,29; 40:15; Lev 4:3; 16:32; Num 3:3; 1Kings 1:34-9; 19:16; 1Chr 16:22; 1Sam 9:16; 10:1; Ps 105:15 etc.

[6]    Ps 2:2; Dan 9:25-6; Isa 61:1; Lk 4:18; 7:38-46; Jn 1:32-3,41; Acts 4:27; 9:22; 10:28; 17:2-3; 18:4,28.

[7]    Cf. for example Sophocles, Ajax, 175; Antigones, 7; Euripides, Alcestis, 1026.

[8]       Plato, Symposium, 180e.

[9]     Gen 9:16-7; Dt 5:26; Ps 136:25; Isa 66:23; Jer 32:27 etc.           

Welcome to tonight’s celebration of the Sacrament of Confirmation, when our young people will complete their initiation into the family of God, the Church. I acknowledge concelebrating with me Fr Thomas Kurunthanam. It has been the strangest of times to be preparing for and celebrating Confirmation and so I want to acknowledge the flexibility and generosity of our teachers, catechists, pastors, parish staff and of course our families and sponsors in getting our young people ready for this very happy celebration tonight. I salute all of them that are here, while acknowledging that the COVID-19 restrictions have prevented many others from attending who would have loved to be here. And to all of you, my young friends who will be receiving this sacrament this evening, I say: a very warm welcome!