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).