The Saving Spirit - Anointing of the Sick


When we are sick, we feel alone, weak and frightened. Things which seemed important don't matter much anymore. But as Christians we know that we are never alone. In fact we are never so close to Jesus as when we are weak or unwell.

During his life on earth, Jesus loved people into total health. He fought pain and suffering in himself and others. He lifted up those who were sick and raised them to new life.

Only when he could no longer avoid pain and death did Jesus accept it. And then, on the cross, Jesus transformed suffering. Through suffering he was raised to new life. And Jesus offers the same life to all who accept him in faith.

Throughout our lives Jesus loves us into total health, helping us to triumph over our sickness. For at the heart of being a Christian are the healing sacraments in which Jesus comes to us as a constant source of strength and restoration.

In Baptism we join the family of God and celebrate God's love and care for us.

In Reconciliation, we experience the healing power of Jesus Christ and the peace of mind which only he can give.

In the Eucharist we are strengthened and supported by the true presence of Jesus every time we turn to him.

The anointing of the sick is the ultimate healing sacrament, available whenever our health is seriously impaired by sickness or old age. God is always with us in our illness, loving us into health of mind, body and soul. Through our faith we know that we will have life forever.

Throughout his life Jesus loved people so deeply and so completely that they were healed of whatever was destroying them, whether that was physical or mental illness, or emotional or spiritual suffering. That is what he continues to do when we receive the sacrament of the sick.

Our fears for the future begin to dissolve as we listen to the words of Jesus who promises to be with us forever. Through this sacrament the sick person is strengthened and encouraged as they face any anxiety or fear they may have about frailty or death. Faith is renewed and the tendency in illness to despair and hopelessness is overcome by the loving signs of the Lord's presence at this special time in our lives.

Old Age

The frailty of old age is recognized too. An old person may not be ill but the years do impose burdens upon the elderly which can be difficult to adjust to and which can make the older person feel isolated and at times very lonely. Again, this sacrament helps and strengthens the Christian in this stage of life so that they can continue to be part of the family of God as actively as possible, for older people have so much to offer younger Christians.

Children

A sick child has special difficulties to overcome. The normal activity and liveliness of youth are often limited to a considerable extent through illness. Being confined to bed or to the house for long periods can limit social contact with other children and a sick child can often worry about the stress their illness places upon parents and the rest of the family. The sacrament of the sick is for any sick child who is old enough to understand what it means and how it can help them as a sign of the real involvement of Jesus Christ in their life day by day.

A Sign of Life

Some people have the idea that this sacrament is rather like the sign of death or approaching death - it is only offered when all hope is lost. In fact the reverse is true: it is a sign of life, the eternal life promised by Jesus Christ, here and now as well as in the future. Christ came to show us how we can have life to the full in whatever situation we find ourselves. His Spirit, active and dynamic in our sickness and frailty as well as in our health and strength, is a real presence. The sacrament of the sick confirms this in a tangible way.

One of the prayers used for blessing the sick person following reception of the sacrament of the sick is:

May God the Father bless you.
May God the Son heal you.
May God the Holy Spirit enlighten you.
May God protect you from harm and grant you salvation.
May he shine on your heart and lead you to eternal life.

God is with the sick person now, nothing is more certain than that. In our growing closeness to Christ and through faith celebrated in this sacrament we receive a new vision of life, a vision that sees everything in the light of God's eternal love. This love is lasting; no sickness is final and even death cannot withstand such love. When we are anointed with oil, a symbol of healing in Christ's time, we receive a sign of Christ's healing care for us now. It is only his strength that can lift us out of suffering to joy and peace.

The Laying On of Hands

After speech and facial expressions, the most powerful vehicle of human communication must surely be the hands. Dictators use sweeping gestures to the tumultuous roars of an hysterical crowd. The hands of a conductor chart rhythmic movements as the orchestra is guided at one moment into soft and peaceful melodies, at another into passionate fortissimos. When the policeman raises his hand the traffic comes to a halt. A wave says goodbye or welcome home. A caressing hand says, "You are beautiful." An embrace says, "I love you."

The liturgy of the Church is full of bodily gestures which are rich in meaning but which may easily escape our notice. The laying on of hands in the sacrament of the sick is such a gesture. When, after the introduction, the priest places his hands on the sick person's head for a few moments, no words are spoken. There is complete silence. What does that mean? The gesture itself is borrowed from Jewish tradition and it has many meanings. It is a sign of blessing, as when Jacob blessed the sons of Joseph. (Genesis 48:13) It is also a sign that the Spirit of God is coming to consecrate someone for a special task, for example, priests. (Numbers 8:10)

Another meaning is that it is a symbol of union: when a sacrifice was to be offered, those making the offering would lay their hands on the victim as if to say, "I am one with you; you are to take on my sentiments of thanksgiving or sorrow or adoration, and so, I will be united with you when you are offered in sacrifice." (Leviticus 1:4)

Some of these meanings are still preserved in the other sacraments like Baptism, Reconciliation, Confirmation and Ordination. In the Sacrament of the Sick, the laying on of hands has a special meaning. First of all, it signifies blessing and healing. Jesus blessed the children in this way, he cured the woman afflicted with a painful stoop and restored sight to the blind man at Bethsaida. He promised that his "disciples will lay hands on the sick and they will be healed." (Mark 16:18) Straight away we see this practice in the early Church. After Paul had become blinded, Ananias comes and lays his hands on him and his sight is restored. (Acts 9:12)

So when the priest lays his hands on the sick person's head, he is following the instructions of Jesus and the practice of the apostles. He is praying, not with words but with a gesture, for healing. The healing, of course, will not be brought about just by a gesture or even by the priest. The gesture or action is what we see. What we don't see is the internal, hidden thing that is happening. The Spirit of God is released in the sick person who is disposed to receive the Spirit. The Spirit of God comes with healing and peace for the body, mind and soul. For the Spirit, after all, was called "The Comforter" by Jesus.

What happens at the Anointing of the Sick?

This sacrament may be celebrated at the church either during a celebration of the Eucharist or at a service for those who are sick. More frequently, it is celebrated at a home, hospital or nursing home.

The family, friends and Christian gather together with the priest.

In preparation for the sacrament all who are present call to mind their personal failure to live as Christians. Prayers of sorrow and reconciliation are expressed.

Everyone listens to the word of God read from the Scriptures. Prayers are offered for all who are sick and for the person receiving the sacrament. Following Christ's example, the priest lays his hands on the sick person in silence.

The sick person is then anointed on the forehead and the hands as the priest prays for them.

Everyone present prays the Lord's Prayer and Holy Communion may now be distributed. This is followed by a final prayer of blessing and healing.

"Any one of you who is ill should send for the elders of the church, and they must anoint the sick person with oil in the name of the Lord and pray over him. The prayer of faith will save the sick person and the Lord will raise him up again; and if he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven." - James 5:14-15

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