The Sacrament of the Sick.
People may remember a time when anointing was associated with the ‘Viaticum’ (‘for the journey’) administered only in the final moments before death. Anointing with holy oil – blessed by the Bishop each Maundy Thursday, was revived largely during the 1970’s. Today, the oil of the sick is used in many different situations, and can be enormously beneficial bringing peace and comfort. Whilst miracles are still possible, of course, perhaps the greatest miracle is the peace and calm it may bring – not only to those anointed, but, in the case of those who are nearing death, to others present too.
‘Is anyone among you sick’, writes James in his Epistle. ‘Let them call for the elders of the church and let them pray over them with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise them up; and if they have committed sins, he will be forgiven’ (James 5.14-15).
Of course all of us are sinners in need of healing and forgiveness, and latter-day practice recognises this. Body mind and spirit are inextricably bound, as Our Lord showed in his approach to healing.
One of the first occasions I was called to give ‘the last rites’ to a woman’s husband, I was aware of the difficulties of understanding the spiritual needs of someone who was so very ill. Whilst being potentially very aware of their surroundings, they may be unlikely to communicate those needs. I knew he had requested, prior to becoming so unwell, not to have people ‘praying over’ him. Arriving at the bedside, I was acutely aware of the potential conflict in the needs of his wife – still very much in love with her husband after many years, and him. Through their love for each other, and by God’s grace, the situation was resolved; by a gentle nod he accepted the anointing, and quiet prayers. It brought a visible peace to them both and to the friends present, and he died a few hours later.
Recently, a number of people in very different circumstances have requested anointing. Most recently, a woman Mary (not her real name) - a wife and mother, whose breathing had become extremely laboured. One of the carers, whom the family had also asked to be present, said she noticed a visible change as she was anointed; and surrounded by her family, she died peacefully, a few moments later.
All are welcome to the regular (at present monthly) healing services, on Sunday evenings at 6.15 pm, during which prayer and reflection are shared, and people are invited to be anointed if they wish. These take place at St Paul’s or at Woosehill (see Pew News, or ask a member of the ministry teams).
As a priest friend writes: anointing can be ‘a powerful reminder that the God we believe in is above all compassionate. He sits beside us in our suffering and our deepest, darkest moments. This sacrament brings comfort and encourages us to reach out, allowing Christ to touch us with his healing hands’ (Rod Cosh February 2015).
One of the most beautiful moments of the church’s year is when priests gather together in cathedrals across the country, renew their vows and collect the holy oils (of Chrism, Baptism and of the Sick) blessed by their Bishops, and bring them back to parishes for use throughout the year. There is a great sense of momentum, and of connection between people and congregations, spreading wider – into the communities served, right to the places and bedsides where it is administered. This is truly and profoundly sacramental, in the very fullest sense.