Have you noticed how bound up with Jesus’s death and resurrection are the sacraments? From the Cross there flowed out blood and water (symbols of the Eucharist and of Baptism). Especially after the Resurrection, accounts of these two sacraments abound. And in today’s Gospel passage, what is it that Christ is doing? He’s not just giving them breakfast after a long night’s rather fruitless toil, but He is indicating again the Eucharist: “Jesus stepped forward, took the bread and gave it to them …” Can you hear the echoes of the Last Supper, and of the Mass? What’s the point of all this? Well, surely, that to for us to live the life of the Resurrection is to live in and with the Sacraments. To be the followers and adorers of the Risen Son of God is to be joined to Him through the sacraments He gives us … all of them: Baptism for first joining onto Jesus, Confirmation for our strengthening in the Spirit, the Mass for our weekly or daily union with the Risen Lord; His Forgiveness in Confession, Marriage for making a couple’s human love holy, Ordination for the making of a priest, Anointing for the solace and blessing of the Sick. These are our access to Jesus … these are His great gifts.
Today I want to concentrate on the Sacrament of the Sick. Probably — along with the ordination of priests — the Sacrament of the Sick is the least-known, least experienced, Sacrament of the Church … and yet it is crying out to be better understood. The Apostles, going out after the Ascension according to Jesus’s command, take with them not just the spoken message of the Gospel, but also the power of Christ to heal and comfort. According to passages in the Gospel and in the Letter of St James, there was an anointing with holy oil that accompanied their prayer of healing; and we see this as evidence for what we celebrate today as the Sacrament of the Sick as truly being an anointing coming from Christ.
There is much misunderstanding over this sacrament, and many Catholics will leave off asking to receive it even when seriously ill. Families are often reluctant to call the priest to visit and anoint a sick loved one, for fear that it would be tantamount to ‘giving up’ on them — admitting finally that they’re dying. Well, the Sacrament of the Sick should not necessarily have those connotations. As believing Catholics we should long for the healing and comforting presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives; we should really desire the Spirit’s presence, especially when we are weak or sick, facing major surgery or even death … At these vulnerable times of life we should deeply yearn to receive God’s gifts of grace in the sacraments. Let me make a few key points:
- The Sacrament of the Sick is not just for those who are dying. It is for the dying, but it is not only for the dying. It is for anyone with a degree of serious illness — which can include a mental illness. It can be given to those about to undergo major surgery; and to anyone who is frail through old age.
- The Church intends that the Sacrament is given to those who are conscious: there are, as in any other liturgy, beautiful responses that form a part of the rite, so that the person being anointed, and their family and friends with them too, can join in the prayers. It is, like so much in the Church, a prayer of the community: the sacrament is celebrated in the context of Christ’s people, surrounding the sick person with faith-filled love & prayers.
- In some cases, of course, anointing will take place for a very sick person who is no longer conscious; the Sacrament is still effective, but it affords the sick person less personal and conscious involvement. In sickness one needs a whole range of support, including emotional and spiritual support; and the Sacrament can provide this, by the grace of God. It is never sensible to keep putting off the Sacrament until someone is unconscious and unable to participate fully in the rite. The priest of course will anoint those on the point of dying; but it is better if he’s had the chance to minister to the sick person on prior occasions too if possible.
- The Sacrament of the Sick is meant to form one part of the rites for those who are dying: the Church’s intention is for those in serious illness to be able to receive forgiveness in Confession, Anointing with the Sacrament of the Sick, and then also Holy Communion. Sometimes, owing to a person’s condition, it may be that a spoken Confession, and the actual swallowing of the Blessed Sacrament, is impossible, in which case the Anointing alone will suffice, but it is not what is ideal.
So, in essence, we must not fear, but embrace the Sacrament of the Sick when the time comes for us, or for some sick relative. A friend of mine who, after a major operation and a recovery, chose to offer himself for train as a priest, and is now a parish priest and hospital chaplain, once told me this: My own memories of being anointed, just before going into theatre for my transplant, often help me empathize with patients when I am on call. It was a most wonderful experience and left me feeling perfectly accepting of either death or life. This is a note of blessed hope, reminding us of the power of Christ over life and death, He who blesses us with all the graces in our needs! Let’s never fear the Lord’s sacraments; let’s want His divine help when we are humanly at our weakest moments.