Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Olives, Olive Oil, and the Mercy of God

This is an amplified  quite a bit longer  version of the sermon I preached at the Diocese of Fond du Lac Chrism Mass at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Fond du Lac, WI on March 19, 2016.

Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.

By now, most of you know that mercy is a basic theme for me. That’s because I believe it is a basic theme of Jesus. It is also a basic theme of our worship. We will explicitly ask for mercy eight times in our liturgy this morning (Rite II Prayer A). That doesn’t count the times we will do so without actually saying the word.

Mercy is a basic Christian theme. But what are we asking for when we ask God for mercy? I read recently an essay by someone who said he does not like the concept of mercy. The reason he gave was that mercy evoked the image of an angry God out to punish us. Mercy is all that prevents God from giving us a well-deserved whacking for our sins. I agree that this is an image of God that leaves much to be desired. And it does reduce mercy to being only about not getting what we deserve. But, mercy is about much more than that.

Certainly, Christians in the early church believed the mercy we know in Jesus is about more than that. To explain and celebrate that mercy, they sometimes used a little word-play. The Greek word for mercy is eleison, as in “Kýrie, eléison,” Lord have mercy. Eleison is similar to elaion, the Greek word for olive. Olives and olive oil were essential in the ancient Mediterranean world. Some commentators of early Church used this similarity as a means of reflecting on various aspects of mercy. Given that we are going to bless olive oil for various uses this morning, it seems fitting to look at olives, olive oil, and mercy


[Holding up an olive branch] In the story of Noah, the dove returns with an olive branch symbolizing the end of the flood and the end of God’s wrath bringing with it peace with God.

We are creatures of agitation and anxiety, tossed about on the stormy waters of life. To pray for mercy is to pray for peace

Jesus is the olive branch bourn by the Holy Dove sent from God to bring peace and deliverance from the storm.

We need peace. We are caught in a web of sin and unlove, of anger, alienation, and violence – a web from which we cannot extricate ourselves. To pray for mercy is to pray for forgiveness and freedom from sin.

Our world is beset with war and violence. The peace of Jesus is a promise that in the end wars will cease and violence will be no more. The peace of Jesus calls us to live in anticipation of that end and be people of peace now. To pray for mercy commits us to be merciful peacemakers.

To pray for mercy expresses a desire for peace – peace with God, deep inner peace, and peace between people.

For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. (Romans 5:10)

In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them. (2 Corinthians 5:19)

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. (John 14:27)

Sink your heart into the mercy of Jesus and know the mercy of his peace.

Living out of that mercy, we can live as a peacemakers and people of reconciliation.

Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.


[Holding up oil for anointing the sick] In the Biblical account of “the good Samaritan” the man who had been attacked has his wounds treated with wine and oil. Olive oil is still a common “folk remedy” in parts of the Mediterranean used as a balm for various hurts and irritations. As we heard in this morning’s gospel, healing was a central part of Jesus mission of mercy and compassion.

Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. (Matthew 9:35)

Each of us, one way or another, is sick and broken. We are all walking wounded – spiritually, emotionally, physically. So, we pray for mercy. We pray for healing. We anoint with olive oil the sick and those who are otherwise in need of healing.

But, the healing we need is for more than just each of us personally. In Johns’ vision of the heavenly Jerusalem there is a tree in the center and the “leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations” (Revelation 22:2). To pray for mercy is to pray for the healing of social wounds and the wounds that come between people and nations.

To pray for mercy is to pray for healing – spiritual, emotional, physical, and social.

Sink your heart into the mercy of Jesus and know the mercy of his healing.

Living out of that mercy, we can live as the healing presence of Jesus in the world.

Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.


[Hold up clay oil lamp and light it] In the time of Jesus, olive oil was used as fuel for lamps to light the darkness. Olive oil is a slow and clean burning fuel, olive oil lamps require infrequent refilling and produce little to no odor, smoke or soot.

The Psalmist wrote, “Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path” (Psalm 119:105). Jesus is that lamp and that light. He said of himself, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

We need that light

Early in the Gospel of Luke we read that Jesus came “to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace" (Luke 1:79). Death and the threat of death cast a shadow over our lives. The fear of death or injury or loss sometimes cause us to do or support dark deeds. In a world of death and destruction, of dishonesty and deceit, of torture and terror, we feel harassed and helpless. We need the mercy of the light of Christ.

On our own we do not know God or ourselves. We are ignorant of our meaning and destiny. We are enigmas to ourselves. We do things we do not intend. We don’t do things we do intend. We rarely understand our own mixed motives. And even when we do intend good, evil is close at hand (see Romans 7 & Luke 11:35). Each of us has dark passages in our past and dark corners in our own heart. We need the mercy of the light of Christ.

The awareness of all the darkness in the world and in ourselves can be overwhelming. But, by the mercy of God, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5). “He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” (Colossians 1:13-14)

Jesus is the light of the world. He calls us to be the light of the world (Matthew 5:14). He calls us to turn from the darkness of hate to the light of love (1John 2:9).

If the LORD is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear? (Psalm 27:1)

To pray for mercy is to pray for that light and that salvation.

Sink your heart into the mercy of Jesus and allow his mercy to illumine your heart and dispel the darkness fear and unlove.

Living out of that mercy, we can walk as children of the light in the way of Jesus and be light in the world.

Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.


[Holding up a jar of olive oil for cooking and a can of olive (tossing an olive in my mouth)] Olives are food. Olives are eaten as food and olive oil is used extensively in cooking. 

Jesus is our true food, nourishing our deepest most insatiable hunger. He promised, “My flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed” (John 6:55), and “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35). In a few minutes, we will again feed on the heavenly manna that is the body and blood of Jesus.

To pray for mercy is to pray to have your deepest hungers satisfied and for and end to all hunger. 

Sink your heart into the mercy of Jesus and be nourished by the Sacrament of his body and blood and the Bible.

Living out of that mercy, we can be the body of Christ, fed by the body of Christ, and offering ourselves to feed a world that is hungry in more ways than one.

Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.


[Dabbing some olive oil my finger and thumb, I rub them together] This is one I did not get from the early Church. I don’t know if olive oil was ever used as a lubricant. But, it seems a fitting symbol for the mercy necessary for life together. We live in a contentious and fractious world. Too often, that contentiousness and fractiousness is evident in the church and in our congregations. We need the mercy of Jesus to “lubricate” our lives with patience, gentleness, generosity, and hospitality.

In Psalm 133, we hear, “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes. To pray for mercy is to pray for that kind of unity and harmony.

Sink your heart into the mercy of Jesus and allow his mercy to lubricate your love and the life of your congregation.

Living out of that mercy, we can be the lubricant of love in a world full of friction, heat, and anger.

Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.

Joy & Gladness

In the lesson from Isaiah we just heard, the prophet refers to the oil of gladness:

grant to those who mourn in Zion--to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified. (Isaiah 61:3)

And we read of Jesus, “You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions” (Hebrews 1:9).

Jesus himself said: “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (John 15.11). To pray for mercy is to pray for that joy.

Sink your heart into the mercy of Jesus and allow his joy and gladness to pour over you and permeate your being.

Living out of that mercy we can smuggle the joy of Jesus into the world.

Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.


[Holding up a container of chrism oil] In the Old Testament, priests and kings were anointed with oil. Moses’ brother Aaron and King David in whom God established his priestly line and his kingly line are examples. I think that is a practice we should reclaim. The next time I ordain someone, I want to pour oil over their head.

In baptism and chrismation we have been anointed – sealed with the Holy
Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever. Therefore we have all been anointed to the vocation of being “little Christs,” “Little Jesuses.” We are all of us part of that royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9) called to bless and serve God’s creation offering it back to him with praise and thanksgiving. We are all of us called to bless and serve one another and the world in Jesus’ name.

The epistle lesson from Ephesians affirms that we all have a vocation to use our various gifts to promote the body’s growth and build it up in love. That means all of us, lay and ordained. We do call some out and ordain them to be deacons – particular icons and leaders in servanthood. We do call some out and ordain them to be priests – particular icons and leaders in blessing. We do call some out and ordain them to be bishops – particular icons and leaders in maintaining the unity and integrity of the Church. I charge those of us who are so ordained to recommit ourselves to the ministries to which we have been called.

And I charge the rest of you, dear people of God, to remember that you to have been anointed to serve, to bless, and bear witness to hope of resurrection and the harmony of new creation. (2 Corinthians 5:17-18)

To pray for mercy is to pray for the power to live into our vocation.

Sink your heart into the mercy of Jesus’ claim on your life and live into your calling to be an agent of his mercy.

Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.

As we bless the oil this morning and as you use it throughout the year, remember that God’s mercy in Jesus brings us peace. Mercy heals us. Mercy lights our path. Mercy feeds us. Mercy enables life together. Mercy brings us joy and gladness. And anoints us for mission as God’s people — orienting us to know who we are and what our purpose is – to be mercy-bearers to a world desperate for the mercy of Jesus.

Let us now recommit ourselves to that vocation.


  1. Bishop, this question is probably common among those of us raised with the 1928 Prayer Book. I was baptized in 1953. I observed many baptisms as I grew up. I don't recall any oil or chrism being used. I don't recall being chrismated when I was confirmed, although it's possible the bishop used chrism and I didn't notice. We had been taught that it was the bishop's hands on our head and the words he spoke that confirmed us.

    Now, I grew up in the (then) "broad church" diocese of Connecticut. Maybe practice was different in other dioceses. When I went off to college in another diocese -during the era of zebra books and green books - I observed chrism used during an ordination.

    But how many of us sitting in the pews were actually chrismated at baptism or confirmation? How many of us weren't? And does it matter? I don't mean to be disrespectful, but it seems to me that we tend to retroject a lot of our current practices back to a time when they were either uncommon or unheard of.

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  3. Dear Father, thank you so much for sharing this beautiful teaching. I'm seeking to learn more about Divine Mercy and often, the writings speak of Divine Mercy (or, as St Therese calls it, Merciful Love) and many of them seem only to refer to Divine Mercy as a form of devotional practice. My heart has been searching for a deeper meaning, one that gets to the very heart of what God's mercy really means. I've grown up with the very superficial and limited definition of mercy, the one that is used when a punishing authority withholds the punishment (I remember the scene from Braveheart, where William Wallace is about to be beheaded, and the crowd begins to cry out "mercy, mercy!". St Therese invites us to place all our confidence and trust in God's mercy. With a definition like that floating around in my head and heart, it's been so difficult, if not impossible, to trust in the idea of God's mercy.

    I discovered some writings by Eastern Orthodox religious, and they definitely talk about mercy in a much more holistic way, and describe the cry for mercy as essentially being a cry for healing. That's beautiful and I sensed in my heart that mercy is even deeper and broader than that.

    Your article is so helpful to me. To make that connection as God's Mercy being an oil - that transmits healing, peace, joy, light, nourishment and that smooths the frictions between people and helps unite them....that's so comforting and encouraging. There's no mention or even hint in that definition of mercy that speaks of punishment and it's avoidance. You've illustrated that mercy is much, much more than that, and how inadequate and, in a sense, inaccurate that definition (avoidance of punishment) is when it comes to Merciful Love. God's mercy is our heart and soul's medicine. Thank you for sharing this with us:)

  4. Thank you for responding. I am glad you found this helpful. Mercy does include God's forgiving us and refraining from punishing or rejecting us. But, God's mercy and grace are about much more than that. For more on the theme, you can read the series of posts on God's mercy and delight that begins here:

  5. Thanks so much, Father. (I hope I'm addressing you correctly. If not, please do let me know). I'll definitely read the blog on Mercy and Delight. I love your blog and especially the name of it. An Odd Work of Grace. The quote that led to it is beautiful. May God continue to bless you and your online ministry:)