Friday, November 22, 2013

Anointing of the Sick

A friend and good follower of the blog asked me about “Last Rites” due to the coverage of the anniversary of JFK’s assassination.  “Last Rites” or “extreme unction” include a celebration of three sacraments:  Reconciliation, Anointing, and Eucharist.  Since Eucharist was covered previously, this is a good tie in for the sacraments of healing:  Penance (aka confession) and Anointing of the Sick.

Most anyone when they are ill or suffering will react in multiple ways.  Some will curse God, like Job’s wife wanted, while others will use it as a means to draw closer to God and seek His strength, like the Psalmists or the apostle Paul.  Christ himself performed many healings to the blind, the deaf, the mute, and on the list goes on.  What He also did in many cases was forgive those people of their sins and credited their belief and faith for the healing.  This is the basis for the sacrament of Anointing.

“Moved by so much suffering Christ not only allows himself to be touched by the sick, but he makes their miseries his own:  ‘He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.’ (Matthew 8:17)  But he did not heal all the sick.  His healings were signs of the coming of the Kingdom of God.  They announced a more radical healing:  the victory over sin and death through his Passover.  On the cross Christ took upon himself the whole weight of evil and took away the ‘sin of the world,’ of which illness is only a consequence.  By his passion and death on the cross Christ has given a new meaning to suffering:  it can henceforth configure us to him and unites us with his redemptive Passion.” (CCC 1505)

Not only did Christ heal, he also charged his disciples with this command as well (Mark 6:12f).  We see also after his ascension into heaven the disciples still performing healings.  There are those who have the gift of healing, which Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 12.  However, even Paul was not relieved of a physical ailment despite his petitions.  “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness,” was the response given (2 Cor 12:9).  We cannot expect physical healing in every case, much as Jesus did not heal every person (CCC 1506-1509).

We see an early version of the sacrament in the letter of James, who wrote, “Is any among you sick?  Let him call for the elders (presbyters) of the Church and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven,” (James 5:14f) (CCC 1510).

Up until recent years, this sacrament was typically celebrated on a person’s deathbed, hence where “Extreme Unction” came from.  After Vatican II, the Church clarified the meaning of the sacrament:

“The sacrament of Anointing of the Sick is given to those who are seriously ill by anointing them on the forehead and hands with duly blessed oil—pressed from olives or from other plants—saying, only once:  ‘Through this holy anointing may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit.  May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up.’” (CCC 1513)

As we see, this sacrament is celebrated in similar ways among Protestants.  Those who are gravely ill or advanced in years would celebrate this.  Also, those who might be undergoing a major medical procedure would consider receiving this sacrament (CCC 1514f).

With “Last Rites”, the anointing is followed by receiving Eucharist before a person dies.  As mentioned previously, the Eucharist is considered the “Sacrament of sacraments” due to the belief that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ.  Christ himself said, “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day,” (John 6:54) (CCC 1524).  Just as the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist begin our journey, so do the sacraments of Penance, Anointing of the Sick, and Eucharist bring a close to our earthly journey (CCC 1525).

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Why Catechesis?

I’ve been mulling for a while how “easy” it is for people to become Christians, primarily in the Protestant world.  Megachurches like Saddleback, Willow Creek, and Lakewood garner much attention and followers, and even where I live, there are a handful of “mini-megachurches” like Christian Life Assembly and West Shore Evangelical Free Church. What I strongly dislike about these places is the methodology used to bring people in (which itself is a problem).

A big problem I have with much of Protestantism (primarily “low liturgy” folks) is the whole “being saved” concept.  Recently, I finished reading Karl Keating’s book “Catholicism and Fundamentalism”, in which Keating defends accusations levied against the Church while at the same time raising questions of fundamentalism.  One chapter is devoted to salvation and the notion of “being saved.”  All one has to do is simply accept Jesus into their heart and their ticket to heaven is punched.  That’s all there is to it, say the fundamentalists.

This is highly contrary to what the early Church did and what Catholicism still does today.  People interested in becoming Christians went through a period of education, or catechesis, before deciding that yes, this is what they wanted.  This process today takes months, starting in the fall and ends at Easter, a stark contrast to a five minute prayer.  Persons are presented with what Catholicism teaches and believes and are essentially asked, “Do you accept this?”  I find it saddening that far too many Christians know little about the beliefs of the denomination they belong to and how they differ from others.  Far too much is based on the “feel” of a particular church, which is where megachurches come in.

Places such as this attract people with their many programs and activities so that in a sense, your life becomes entrenched in that one place.  This promulgates the “bring people in” model of evangelism, which is not what Jesus said.  “Go out into all the world and preach the Gospel” is the command given by Jesus before his ascension (Matt. 28:19, Acts 1:8).  The Church should be what attracts seekers, not a church.  In other words, it’s our job as Christians to lead by example, to “preach the gospel always and, when necessary, use words” as St. Francis of Assisi said.  Along with that though, we also need to educate and have good catechesis so that maybe, just maybe, we can develop Christians with a deeper understanding of the faith, whose roots are deep in the Gospel, and those who can defend the faith well.

Monday, February 25, 2013

I'm back!

For those who may have been unaware, this past year I was in school taking evening classes.  This left me with no time for blogging, hence the large gap between my most recent post and the previous one.  Thankfully I am now done and can devote more time to the blog and answering your questions.

I'm hoping to get through the rest of the sacraments this year, as the whole tour started back in 2009 with Baptism and stalled at the Eucharist.  This was largely due to you, my readers, asking questions about various Catholic teachings like praying to saints or mortal and venial sins.  One sacrament, marriage (matrimony) has been touched on in some other posts, but will get a more thorough look in its own post.

I always appreciate your questions and comments, as it hopefully helps you better understand Catholicism and perhaps realize that we're not quite so wacky as you think!

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Eucharist part 2: Transubstantiation

Transubstantiation:  A big word that essentially is one of the major belief differences between Catholicism and most, if not all, of Protestantism.  The term refers to a belief about the Eucharist (communion), which was heavily debated during the Protestant Reformation, especially among prominent Protestant leaders, like Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Ulrich Zwingli.  Mainly in response to the Reformation, the Church convened for the Council of Trent in the mid-1500s, which firmly established transubstantiation as the right view of the Eucharist (among many other things, hence why it is referred to as the Counter-Reformation).

The Catechism begins its teaching on this doctrine at paragraph 1373.  I left the Eucharist part one at paragraph 1344.  Those sections after this talk about the Mass and contain teachings on why we celebrate this sacrament.  For the purposes of this post, the focus will be on specifically transubstantiation.

What does this long word mean anyway?  Essentially it is the belief that Christ is physically present in the bread and wine after the priest consecrates them on the altar.  So they are no longer bread and wine, but are now the body and blood of Christ (hence also the reason for the feast of Corpus Christi).  Christ’s presence is also affirmed in Scripture:

“Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there.” – Matthew 18:20

“Whatever you did for the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did for me.” – Matthew 25:40

Christ is also present at the celebration of any sacrament of the Church, since he authored them, but “most especially in the Eucharistic species,” (CCC 1373).  His presence in the Eucharist is what elevates it to being “the sacrament of sacraments.”  Thomas Aquinas wrote that the Eucharist is “the perfection of the spiritual life and the end to which all the sacraments tend,” (CCC 1374).  The Council of Trent stated that in the Eucharist “the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ it truly, really, and substantially contained.”  This presence is more “real” because it is “a substantial presence by which Christ, God and man, makes himself wholly and entirely present,” (CCC 1374).

Transubstantiation is part of the reason non-Catholics are asked to not participate in the Eucharist.  Most Protestant denominations believe in a symbolic view of the Eucharist, that Christ’s body and blood are symbolized in the bread and wine.  Catholicism teaches that it is actually the body and blood of Christ, not a symbol.

Here some may say, “Why wait until the 1500s to clarify this?  Why not earlier?”  To answer, many theological issues had no need to be fleshed out in such a way because the majority of people believed it.  When the dynamic changes, the Church in response will solidify its position on a teaching.  This is true not only for transubstantiation, but for other doctrines and teachings like Christ’s dual natures or Marian beliefs.

In fact, many early Church fathers promoted the belief in transubstantiation.  Thomas Aquinas was mentioned above, and others like John Chrysostom and Ambrose also spoke about this.

“It is not man that causes the things offered to become the Body and Blood of Christ, but he who was crucified for us, Christ himself.  The priest, in the role of Christ, pronounces these words, but their power and grace are God’s.  This is my body, he says.  This word transforms the things offered.” – John Chyrsostom

“Be convinced that this is not what nature has formed, but what the blessing has consecrated.  The power of the blessing prevails over that of nature, because by the blessing nature itself has been changed… Could not Christ’s word, which can make from nothing what did not exist, change existing things into what they were not before?  It is no less a feat to give things their original nature than to change their nature.” – Ambrose of Milan (CCC 1375)

The Council of Trent said it in this way:  “Because Christ our Redeemer said that it was truly his body that he was offering under the species of bread, it has always been the conviction of the Church of God, and this holy Council now declares again, that by the consecration of the bread and win there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood.  This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called transubstantiation.” (CCC 1376)

Another fellow Catholic blogger also points out that no one up until the Protestant Reformation disputed transubstantiation and, as pointed above, the early Fathers in fact promoted this belief.

Biblical evidence of this claim is also found not only at the Last Supper, but also in John 6.  After Jesus feeds the multitude of people, they come back wanting more.  Jesus tells them that he is the bread of life and that this bread is his flesh (vv. 35-51).  The crowd is then perplexed:  How can Jesus give them his flesh (v. 52)?

Jesus answers, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.  Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.  For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink.  Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them.  Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me.  This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” (vv. 53-58)

After this, many of these disciples leave him because they cannot swallow his teaching.  Typically, Jesus would explain more if it were symbolic, like he does for parables.  Here, he essentially says, “Here it is.  Take it or leave it.”  And it is difficult to fathom; our minds cannot process it.  It is simply a matter of faith.  The food that looks like bread and tastes like bread is not bread, but Christ’s body. The drink that looks like wine and tastes like wine is not wine, but Christ’s blood.