This week we will continue our examination of the sacraments with the second sacrament of healing, called Anointing of the Sick. Illness, and the suffering that comes with it, is a condition that came to humanity through Original Sin. When creating Adam and Eve, God endowed them with particular preternatural gifts, one of which was that they were never intended to suffer bodily corruption of any sort. However, with the Fall came the loss of these gifts. We were thereby subject to bodily corruption, which includes illness and eventual death. I do not have to explain that illness and suffering are tremendous problems that we deal with in our human condition, forcing us to look at our own mortality. Sometimes these realities can lead us to “anguish, self-absorption, sometimes even despair and revolt against God. It can also make a person more mature, helping him discern in his life what is not essential so that he can turn toward that which is” (CCC #1501). To the end of helping us use our suffering from illness to turn toward God, rather than away, Jesus gave us this particular sacrament to offer the divine grace we need for perseverance and healing, whether physical or spiritual (CCC #1500-1501).
There is no shortage of examples of Jesus healing illnesses and relieving the afflictions of those around Him at every turn. We even call Christ the “Divine Physician.” He saw the suffering of humankind with compassionate eyes and was generous with His healing powers. He also identified with those suffering from illness by reminding us through the corporal works of mercy, that when we care for sick, we are, in fact, caring for Him (Matthew 25:36). It is so important to remember that no matter what you’re suffering, in body or soul, Jesus wants to be your ultimate source of comfort (CCC #1503).
Of course, Jesus did not heal everyone in the gospels, nor does He do so now. In those times, it is because He wishes to communicate the even deeper healing that will come in the Kingdom of Heaven after His sacrificial death has provided victory over sin and its effects of suffering and death. In other words, there is something greater than our healing on earth, and that is the eternal and perfect healing we receive as the result of His own suffering. In our moments of suffering, we are called to join it to His victorious cross so that He can give it new meaning, which is redemption (CCC #1505). So, we should not despair if we do not receive physical healing. We can see that Jesus wants us to know and understand both truths about Him – that He can heal if it is His will, and that even if it is not His will to do so now, it is because our greatest healing still awaits us in our heavenly home with Him.
Now the questions are: who can receive the sacrament and who can administer the sacrament? The Anointing of the Sick is not reserved only for those who are at the point of death. However, it is important to note that if one is in danger of death (or is suffering from any effects of older age that would indicate that one could be approaching death) it is certainly a good time to receive the sacrament (CCC #1514). However, a person can also receive the sacrament more than once. For example, if one receives healing, but becomes ill again, or if one’s illness progresses to something graver, it is appropriate to repeat the sacrament. It is also fitting to seek the sacrament prior to a serious operation (CCC #1515). As for the ministers of the sacrament, priests alone have the ability. Those seeking the sacrament should start by calling their local pastor (CCC #1516).
We have discussed with the previous sacraments that Jesus uses earthly things to communicate divine realities. There are times where he illustrates this to us in His scriptural formula. For example, he uses spit and dirt to make mud to heal the blind man’s eyes, and He also uses the laying on of His hands to pass along His healing power (John 9:6, Luke 4:40). Therefore, the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick involves anointing the individual with oil that has been blessed and the laying on of hands during prayer (CCC #1517-1519). It is also not uncommon for a priest to include two other sacraments with this one: the Eucharist, as the grace received from it is beneficial to the healing of the soul, and Confession which heals the soul and reconciles it to God in preparation for certain or possible death.
The Catechism identifies four effects of the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick for the individual receiving it. The first is a particular gift of the Holy Spirit. This is a grace where the Holy Spirit bestows strength, peace, and courage upon the one who is ill or frail. The grace helps the individual to turn to God in trust and faith and helps to block out the temptations to be discouraged or to fear death. This grace is directed toward a healing of the soul (CCC #1520). The second effect is union with the passion of Christ. By this grace, the individual has the strength to tie his or her suffering more tightly to Christ’s Passion and configure one’s own human suffering to the redemptive suffering of Jesus. It gives the suffering new meaning (CCC #1521). The third effect is ecclesial grace. In uniting one’s suffering to Christ, the particular individual’s suffering contributes to the salvific good of the entire Body of Christ. Here, also, the individual receives the intercession of the communion of saints. In this sense, all of the members of the body of Christ work together for the good of all of humanity (CCC #1522). The final effect of the sacrament is preparation for the final journey. Just as Baptism allows for the faithful to be born into the family of God, Anointing of the Sick allows for the ill individual to join in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. It seals one’s conformity to the entire life of Christ in a very real and present way (CCC #1523).
Facing the mortality of ourselves or of our loved ones is never an easy thing to do. It often evokes feelings of fear, anxiety, and sadness, among other things. However, we as Christians know what awaits us after this life and into eternity, which ought to make facing those feelings a little bit easier. How does understanding the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick help you to understand God’s compassion for you and your loved one’s in the midst of serious suffering? How does understanding the effects and graces of the sacrament help to comfort you in those difficult times? Contemplate how you might use that suffering to draw nearer to God’s own compassionate heart, rather than to give in to the temptation of despair and loss of hope, because what lies ahead is more glorious than anything we could ever imagine.
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