The Church sees the life of the believer, in a sense, as one’s own personal journey through the wilderness towards the “Promised Land” of eternal life in the Father’s Kingdom.
Just as the ancient Israelites were aided in their passage through the wilderness with manna and water from the rock, so are Christians upheld on their journey by the grace they receive through the Sacraments (see Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians 10:1).
The Sacraments are the means God has established to cleanse, feed, heal, and care for His children of the New Covenant. The Lord has provided for each step of our spiritual journey: the commencement of the journey in Baptism; our nourishment and strengthening in the Eucharist and Confirmation; our restoration when we fall in Confession and in a special way in the Anointing of the Sick, which is often also a final preparation before crossing over the threshold of death to be received into the Father’s embrace.1
The Sacraments are signs which convey the grace they symbolize. The sacramental concept is found throughout the Bible, but nowhere more profoundly than in the healing ministry of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Consider the Gospel story of the man born blind in which clay, a physical object, becomes a channel for the transmission of God’s grace (John 9:6). On another occasion, a woman with a hemorrhage is cured by touching the Savior’s garments—that is, God’s power is transferred through the material of Jesus’ clothing (see Mark 5:25 ff.).
In the Bible, sacred oil is used in ritual healings. We see this in the ministry of the Apostles, who “cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many that were sick and healed them” (Mark 6:13). The practice of anointing the sick was an official rite of the Apostolic Church, as the Apostle James revealed writing:
Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders 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. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed (Jas. 5:14-16).
This passage echoes the counsel of Sirach, “My son, when you are sick do not be negligent, but pray to the Lord, and he will heal you. Give up your faults and direct your hands aright, and cleanse your heart from all sin” (38:9-10).
The healing of the body and soul are often interrelated, though the latter is considered to be the greater work. Jesus inquired of His critics:
“Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk?’ But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins … Rise, take up your bed and go home.” (Matthew 9:5-6)
In the Anointing of the Sick, a physical healing often accompanies the spiritual healing, though the spiritual healing is the true focus of the rite.2 Coincidentally, the Apostles’ acts of anointing in Mark 6:13 are prefaced by preaching on repentance from sin (6:12). Likewise, in James 5 the emphasis shifts from a bodily to a spiritual cure, the references to “the sick man” being “saved” and “healed” implying the sinner receiving forgiveness.
The witness to the Anointing of the Sick in the earliest historical Christian writings is sparse by comparison to the other Sacraments, though it is implied in the penitential practices of the Church, especially in her reliance upon the clergy for the forgiveness of sins.
In about the year 150, Saint Justin the Martyr affirmed that the presbyters, who presided over the Eucharistic celebration, had among their many duties the care of the sick (First Apology 67). In about 215, acknowledging the power of the bishop to forgive sins, Saint Hippolytus of Rome revealed that the oil blessed by the bishop would “give strength to all that taste of it and health to all that use it” (The Apostolic Tradition 5:2). The Council of Nicaea in 325 decreed the Viaticum should not be refused the dying (Canon 13).
- The concept of a spiritual journey is contained in the Latin term viaticum or “food for the journey,” which refers to the Eucharist received during the Last Rites. ↩
- The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Over the centuries the Anointing of the Sick was conferred more and more exclusively on those at the point of death. Because of this it received the name ‘Extreme Unction.’ Notwithstanding this evolution the liturgy has never failed to beg the Lord that the sick person may recover his health if it would be conducive to his salvation” (par. 1512). ↩