Jesus commissioned his disciples to ‘Heal the sick’ (Matthew 10.8) and promised that if ‘they will lay their hands on the sick’ then the sick ‘will recover’ (Mark 16.18).
The Anointing of the Sick is the sacrament (a holy and visible sign of an invisible reality) in which this healing takes place. Such healing is not necessarily physical. Instead, the grace of this sacrament consists in welcoming Christ the healer into our lives. So Christ eases our suffering not by removing illness, but by coming to dwell within those who receive the sacrament. This helps them to bear the weight of their suffering, as he shares their burden of pain.
The Anointing of the Sick was first written about by St James, who said that ‘Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the Church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up’ (James 5.14-15). So the sacrament consists in two actions, the laying on of hands, and the anointing of the person (usually their forehead and hands) with holy oil, by a Priest. As he anoints the forehead, the Priest says to the person ‘Through this holy anointing may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit’, and as he anoints the hands he says ‘May the Lord who frees from sin save you and raise you up’. The Church teaches that as part of the healing which is brought about in this sacrament, the sick person is freed from sin.
Jesus of course knew what it was to be in pain, having suffered for our sake. Yet those wounds which he gained on the cross are also the wounds which gave life to his Church. We see this when, after his death, his side was pierced with a lance: blood and water flowed out of his body as signs of the sacraments by which he continues to give life to his Church. We also see this in his appearance to St Thomas: Thomas had doubted Christ’s resurrection having not been there when Christ first appeared to his apostles. It was only when he touched Christ’s wounds that he exclaimed ‘My Lord and my God’. So the sacrament of Anointing does not remove our wounds, just as the resurrected body of Jesus still showed the marks of the lance and the scars of the nails, but it transforms the pain we experience and helps us endure it. In doing so, it takes something that is broken and makes it into something beautiful.
Anointing used to be associated with the end of life, and was often referred to as ‘Extreme Unction’. However, you do not have to be at the point of death to be anointed, although it is still good to receive the sacrament at this point. You must however be sick: those who are troubled by the presence of sin in their lives but who are not sick should seek the sacrament of Penance, which, like Anointing, frees from sin, and can also be repeated whenever the conditions arise.
If you are sick or you know someone who is, and you or they would like to receive the sacrament of Anointing, please contact the Vicar.