The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick
Fr. William Messenger
Part I—Historical Perspective
There are two passages in the Christian Scriptures that refer to anointing.
"With that they went off, preaching the need of repentance. They expelled many demons, anointed the sick with oil, and worked many cures." (Mark 6, 12-13)
"Is there anyone sick among you? He should ask for the presbyters of the Church. They in turn are to pray over him with oil in the name of the Lord. This prayer uttered in faith will reclaim the one who is ill, and the Lord will restore him to health. If he has committed any sins, forgiveness will be his." (James 5, 14-15)
These two passages clearly indicate that the anointing is for the sick and that its purpose is to heal, not to prepare for death. This was the practice of the Church for the first 800 years and was always stated in the prayers for recovery during the anointing. This practice of a liturgy for the sick has also been preserved in the Eastern Church and the Anglican Communion.
In the beginning, anointing appears to have been a Palestinian custom that was taken over by Jesus and his followers. It is important to recall that the healing miracles are signs of the coming of the Kingdom. Jesus' healing ministry is continued by his followers as the Kingdom continues to be realized and grows to perfection. The Scriptural evidence depicts a person who is seriously ill, but by no means dying. The purpose of the Sacrament is to save the sick person whom the Lord will restore to health. The Sacrament is not just a medicinal cure. It contains elements of forgiveness, and the ministers are not charismatic or miraculous healers--they are the official representatives of the local Christian community. The primary emphasis was on recovery.
This practice and emphasis continued until the 9th century and is beautifully expressed in a ritual ceremony depicting the communal aspect of the Sacrament: several ministers, a choir, and a delegation from the local church. Up to and including this time, the order of celebration consisted in penance, anointing and viaticum (communion). At this same time, some changes crept in which were not in keeping with the Scriptural and traditional evidence. Penance had deteriorated to a deathbed experience. The order of the celebration was changed to penance, viaticum, and anointing. This gave rise to the incorrect concept of "extreme unction" and "last rites", and eventually was reserved for the dying.
The recent renewal has again emphasized the Lord's idea of healing. This Sacrament is for the sick-not the dying.
Part II—Theological Perspective
The first part of our discussion made clear that anointing is a Sacrament for the sick. Danger of death is no longer a condition for receiving the Sacrament. Now we take a look at the effects of this anointing.
Each year there is a special Mass in which the bishop blesses the oils that the church uses. In the prayer for blessing the oil of the sick the bishop prays:
"May your blessing come upon all who are anointed with this oil, that they may be freed from pain, illness and disease and made well again in mind and soul."
But what does it mean to be seriously ill? To be sick means bodily pain, psychic depression, isolation from one's profession as well as from normal human society, especially as experienced in the family. To be sick means impatience, sulkiness or excessive preoccupation with self. To be sick means discouragement or even despair, hardness of heart, spiritual dryness.
We are fortunate that we live in this age, because we know that sickness is more than a medical problem. Any sickness is a crisis situation in the life a Christian in relation to his/her life with Christ in the community of the Church. If we understand grace as the presence of the Lord than sickness can be an obstacle to grace. The Lord seeks to heal or overcome these obstacles so that he can be fully present to the members of the Church. The grace of the anointing may sometime result in the restoration to complete health-a clinical cure. But much more likely, the Sacrament of anointing will enable the Christian in spite of and through the illness that afflicts him/her to follow and identify with the suffering and risen Lord in responding to the call of the Father.
All sacraments prepare us for glory-for union with the Lord. It should be clear that in the case of anointing, it is not specifically a Sacrament for the dying (for this we have viaticum), but for the seriously ill. It should also be clear by now that many people, for many different reasons or types of illness, may and should receive this Sacrament with some frequency.
In the third and final part of our reflection we will deal with the community's response and involvement in this Sacrament-the place of CELEBRATION.
The healing ministry begun by Christ is carried on and fulfilled in His Church, and all its members share in this ministry:
"It is thus especially fitting that all baptized Christians share in this ministry of mutual charity within the Body of Christ by doing all that they can to help the sick return to health, but showing love for the sick, and by celebrating the sacraments with them. Like the other sacraments, these too have a community aspect, which should be brought out as much as possible when they are celebrated." (Pastoral Care of the Sick, General Introduction #33).
There are many dimensions to a full ministry to the sick and aged. These include frequent visits, distribution of Communion, possibility for the Sacraments of Reconciliation and Anointing. The whole community is involved. Lay men and women can be the source of comfort and consolation to the sick and aged, and heighten their awareness of self-worth and value. Someone cares. Young people, too, share in this ministry bringing their vivaciousness and youth to buoy up the spirits of the afflicted. The young have a special gift for other young people who are sick or hospitalized- whether physically or mentally ill.
This full community involvement finds a special expression during the liturgical celebration of the Sacrament. If possible, every anointing should take place with the presence of relatives and friends who can participate in the celebration, and in so doing represent and make present the ecclesial community. Besides their prayer responses, they can also participate with appropriate music. When the state of the sick permits, the anointing should take place in the context of the Eucharistic celebration. On most occasions, the votive Mass of the Sick, with special readings, is celebrated. This provides a full celebration of the Sacrament rather than adding it to another celebration. During this liturgy, the symbols (both in action and prayer) are important. The imposition of hands is employed as the traditional sign for imparting the power of the Spirit. The Lord is praised for his power in our life and for the gift of oil through which he heals. The actual anointing with oil takes place. This is an easy sign to relate to--much like people using oil to soothe ailing parts of the body. Then the community is led to celebration at the table of the Lord.
Some key ideas to remember would include: Anointing is for the sick and should be received frequently. Viaticum (Communion) is for the dying. Anointing can bring healing or strengthening. People can and should be anointed for a variety of illnesses, not all physical. The anointing should be celebrated, if possible, in a Eucharistic liturgy. The “whole community” shares in the pastoral care of the sick and should enhance the celebration of anointing with their presence and actual participation, especially with music.
(Fr. William Messenger is a priest in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles)