St Agnes, Kennington 23 February 1997

Gen 22: 1-2, 9-13, 15-18
Romans 8: 31-34
Mark 9: 2-10


YEAR B. LENT 2 The Sacrament of Unction

Last week we considered the Sacrament of Confession. It's a natural progression from there to think about the Sacrament of Unction or Anointing with Oil.

Natural because the two sacraments very often go together. this has been true from the earliest days of the Church.

Listen to some words from the Epistle of James:

"If one of you is ill he should send for the elders of the church, and they must anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord and pray over him. The prayer of faith will save the sick man and the Lord will raise him up again; and if he has committed any sins he will be forgiven. So confess your sins to one another and pray for one another and this will cure you."

There are several things to notice here.

Firstly, oil has been used in medicine for thousands of years, long before the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. So the sacrament of unction wasn't, so to speak, a completely new idea. You will remember that the Good Samaritan poured oil and wine onto the wounds of the injured Jew whom he found lying in the gutter by the roadside in the parable of that name. He knew what he was doing, though it was to be another 2,000 years before people like Louis Pasteur and Lord Lister were to discover exactly why oil and wine were the right things to use on wounds.

Wine contains alcohol which therefore acts as an antiseptic; and olive oil is an emollient which helps to soothe away pain and also has a part to play in the healing process because in Jesus' time it was the nearest thing they had to soap and was therefore associated in people's minds with the idea of cleanliness which is so important in dressing wounds.

The second thing to notice then is that supernatural healing is in no way intended by God to take the place of natural healing, but the two sorts of healing, natural and super-natural are meant to work together or complement each other.

When St James told his readers that they should "send for the Elders of the Church" when someone is ill, there would almost certainly have been amongst those Elders one who had made it his business to know something about medicine. Missionaries from the very beginning have included medical skills amongst those which they have taught to people being sent out to preach the Gospel in foreign lands.

So in the same way we, when we anoint the sick with oil in the name of Jesus Christ are not doing something opposed to or as a substitute for proper medical advice and attention. Priests, on the contrary, work in the closest possible liaison with doctors, nurses, psychiatrists, therapists and others. Certainly the first step to take when anyone is ill is to get a proper medical diagnosis.

The next thing to notice about what St James tells us is that he nowhere mentions that people have to be dying as a condition to their being anointed. His words, you remember are "If any of you is ill, let him send for the elders of the Church"

Of course the Sacrament of Anointing is entirely appropriate for someone who is dying; but it is equally appropriate in the case of any serious illness whether it is likely to prove terminal or not.

Commonsense and instinct will very often help people decide whether a particular affliction calls for unction or not. If you've cut your finger, or have a hangover from the night before, then unction probably isn't appropriate (though confession may be, especially in the latter case); but if the cut gets infected badly and this leads to septicaemia, or if a headache becomes a semi-permanent fixture then these probably are appropriate cases for anointing, alongside any conventional medical treatment that may be called for.

Having decided that Unction is appropriate leads St James on to the next point: "Let him send for the elders of the church".

There is a curious superstition which still lingers in some people's minds that their parish priest has some sort of second-sight and knows instinctively, when someone is absent from Church for a number of weeks, whether it is because they are ill, or because they're away on holiday or have simply moved out of the district without telling him.

If the person in question has been coming to church every Sunday for years and years then their absence is easily noticed and enquiry made as to its reason. But for those who are not so regular it's possible for even the most diligent priest to go for several weeks at a time without even realising that they are missing. This, if you think of it, is particularly likely when a Parish Priest is new to a place. For instance, I'm just beginning, after a few weeks, to get to know people's faces and names; but the chances are that I wouldn't notice if a particular person were absent unless the fact were drawn to my attention.

During the course of my ministry my experience of anointing people has been invariably a favourable and encouraging one. It's always appeared to fit naturally into God's plan, not only for dealing with sickness but also for tending to those suffering from "the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to".

Such people have included not only the dying, but, for example, those facing a major operation; those going through a really sticky time financially or matrimonially; those suffering from longstanding pain or emotional upset; the bereaved; and those facing some severe test or trial about which they are unduly apprehensive: an exam, or an interview, perhaps.

Now it goes without saying that in each of these cases the priest makes as sure as he can that the other appropriate steps have been or are being taken. He ensures that the sick person has indeed seen the doctor; the one in financial trouble has been to their bank manager; that the student suffering from exam-nerves has prepared properly and worked hard to pass the pending examination: Unction is no kind of religious "magic" which "works" where other things have failed; on the contrary, if the other appropriate steps have not been taken the chances are that being anointed won't make the slightest difference or do any good at all.

But let us suppose that all these conditions have been met. What actually happens?

Well, it's very simple, really. In St Agnes, like many others, there is a small bottle of oil kept in a locked cupboard. This oil has been consecrated for this purpose on the previous Maundy Thursday by the bishop.

The afflicted person either comes to church at an arranged time, or if that's not possible the priest goes to them at their home or in hospital.

After some preparation, which may include sacramental confession and absolution, the priest dips his thumb in the oil and anoints the forehead of the patient with it, making the sign of the cross. Then he lays his hands on their head and prays for them (as St James instructs) and prays for them. Finally, he wipes off the oil with a piece of cotton-wool.

Why does anointing work?

Well the simple answer is that it works because it is something which God, the giver of all health, has told us to do. When Jesus sent his apostles out on the first missionary journey one of the things he told them to do was to anoint the sick with oil, and he wouldn't have suggested doing so if such had not been the will of his heavenly Father.

But it's worth mentioning one last thing about oil and what it symbolises as a first step to answering the question "Why does it work?"

Oil has been used medically as we saw earlier because of its soothing and cleansing properties. But it has also been used from the very earliest times to "mark out" particular people who have been chosen by God to play some special role in his plan for the salvation of the world. Kings, leaders, rulers and the newly baptised and confirmed have all been anointed as a sign or "seal" of the covenant between God and them.

So to the question which is so often asked by anyone who is suffering "Why should this happen to me?" whether the "this" is illness, misfortune, unhappiness or anything else, although that question has no simple answer, we can at least say in reply "Because you are special".

If God chooses to single us out for a purpose, to do some particular work for him, then the odds are that that purpose will include trouble, suffering, disappointment and sorrow before ever it brings joy, peace and a sense of fulfilment.

Just think of Abraham being asked to sacrifice Isaac; think of Jesus having to go through his Passion before his Resurrection; think of the work that is needed to be put in before passing an exam; think of the pain that often goes with the process of being healed.

God does not prevent pain from happening. But he has given us the Sacrament of Holy Unction to help us through it. those who have done what he has suggested and received the sacrament in the course of their sufferings here on earth all bear witness to the fact that it really works!

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