The experience of the coronavirus has made us more conscious of the fragility of human life and our need to care for ourselves and others. Despite all the advances in modern medicine, death will come to us all, but because it is such a mystery we often fear it and do not know what to do when faced with it.
The Anointing of the Sick is the sacrament for those who are ill and those who are dying, but it is probably the least understood of the sacraments. It is often thought of only as the ‘last rites’ and yet it is principally a sacrament for the living who are ill and it may be repeated many times throughout a person’s life. Anointing does not necessarily signify imminent death; it is a sign of blessing and hope, a source of strength and courage, a gift of grace from a loving God who wants only ‘wholeness’ for us.
We see this in Jesus, who showed love and compassion to those who were ill. When approached by a leper his response was ‘Of course I want to heal you’ (Mk 2:40-41). Restored to wholeness, the leper could resume his place in the community. The Anointing of the Sick continues Christ’s healing work and is a sign of the community’s care for the sick person, both physically and spiritually.
In writing to the earliest Christians St James reminded them: ‘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; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven’
Our sacrament of Anointing is built on this text. It is in four short parts. The Rite begins with the greeting and sprinkling with holy water, followed either by a Penitential Rite or sacramental confession. The Liturgy of the Word comprises a passage from Scripture, a reflection on this if the circumstances are appropriate, and prayers of intercession. The priest then lays hands in silence on the head of the sick person. This is a very meaningful moment, as this action has always signified the calling down of the Holy Spirit who, in one of the prayers of this rite is beautifully named Helper and Friend. The anointing with oil on the forehead and hands is accompanied by a two-part prayer: ‘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.’ The final part of the sacrament is the reception of holy Communion – food to nourish the spirit and give strength for the future.
Anyone who is seriously ill may receive the sacrament of Anointing. Those who are chronically ill often fall into this category as do many elderly folk who battle with the aging process and the diminishments that brings. The sacrament can be celebrated during Mass in the parish church, or at the home of the sick person, or in a hospital or nursing home.
While this sacrament always concludes with Communion, for the final moments of life there is Viaticum, our last Communion on earth, so named because it is food for the journey to eternal life (viaticum means on the way with you). To the usual words, ‘The Body of Christ’ the priest adds ‘May the Lord Jesus Christ protect you and lead you to eternal life’. What a beautiful way to farewell this earthly life and be welcomed into the joy of life forever with God.
Never be afraid to ask for the sacrament of Anointing, whatever your age. Welcome it as a moment of grace and a sign of God’s great love.
Dr Jenny O’Brien is manager of the Office for Worship.