This month, we are turning our attention to the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. One characteristic of all seven sacraments is that they were instituted by Christ, and not a later innovation of the Church. Similar to Confirmation, the moment when Christ began the celebration of this sacrament is not as clear as baptism or the Eucharist, but there is still plenty of Scriptural evidence for the institution. The main text where we find evidence for this sacrament is found in James 5:14-15.
Is any among you sick? Let him call for the presbyters 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.
Another text which is found in the Gospel of Mark alludes to this sacrament, although not as explicitly as the Apostle James. “Jesus summoned the Twelve and began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over unclean spirits. They drove out many demons, and they anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them” (Mark 6:7, 13). We see a few similarities between these two texts. The first similarity is who is doing the anointing of the sick. The Apostle James instructs the presbyters to pray over the sick person and anoint him. “Presbyter” means elder in the generic sense, but refers specifically to priests in the New Testament. The Apostle Paul appointed presbyters in every town and told the other bishops to do the same thing. The text from Mark shows us that Jesus instructed the Twelve Apostles to do the anointing of the sick. Because the Anointing of the Sick involves the power to forgive sins, only priests and bishops can do this. Jesus has not given this authority to deacons or other members of the Church.
A second similarity between both Mark and James is that the priests anoint with oil. This oil, called the “Oil of the Sick” is blessed by the diocesan bishop at the annual Chrism Mass, along with the Sacred Chrism (used for Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders), and Oil of Catechumens. In an emergency situation, any priest can bless oil to anoint somebody near death. Although not as common, it is a traditional part of our faith to offer other types of anointings which are not sacraments. Maybe you have heard about a special “oil of St. Joseph” or another oil associated with a saint. This oil is used in a similar way to holy water, as a physical reminder of our faith and a method for expressing devotion.
The primary fruit of the Anointing of the Sick is strengthening one’s spirit through suffering. I will write more about this in future columns, but I wanted to point out the scriptural connections while we are exploring these two passages. Notice that the Apostle James talks about the prayer of faith saving the sick man, and his sins being forgiven. The Anointing of the Sick does sometimes result in physical healing of a person’s ailment, but this is only a secondary fruit of the sacrament. God will sometimes use Anointing to heal somebody physically if this healing will be fruitful for their spiritual life.
Jesus came to share in our suffering, and he did so in a concrete way through his passion, death, and resurrection. This sharing in our suffering continues to this day as Jesus comes to comfort us in our darkest moments through the Anointing of the Sick.