What is the Anointing of the Sick? This is a common question. The Anointing of the Sick is most likely one of the last sacraments one will receive. It is often administered near the time of death to bring spiritual and even physical strength during an illness.
A sacrament is an outward sign established by Jesus Christ to confer inward grace. In more basic terms, it is a rite that is performed to convey God's grace to the recipient through the power of the Holy Spirit.
The name by which the sacrament is called has changed over time. It was once called extreme unction, which means "the last anointing," and has been referred to as part of the "last rites."
The Institution of the Sacrament
Where did this sacrament come from? Like all the sacraments, it was instituted by Jesus Christ during his earthly ministry. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that this sacred anointing of the sick was instituted by Christ our Lord as a true and proper sacrament of the New Testament. It is alluded to indeed by Mark, but is recommended to the faithful and promulgated by James the apostle and brother of the Lord. This refers to the biblical evidence for the sacrament Anointing of the Sick.
When Jesus sent out the twelve disciples to preach they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many that were sick and healed them - Mark 6:13. In his epistle, James says, "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".
The early Church Fathers recognized the role of this sacrament in the life of the Church. Around A.D. 250, Origen wrote that the penitent Christian does not shrink from declaring his sin to a priest of the Lord and from seeking medicine of which the apostle James says: 'If then there is anyone sick, let him call the presbyters of the Church, and let them impose hands upon him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and if he be in sins, they shall be forgiven him.
The Effects of the Sacrament
What happens when this sacrament is received? What are its benefits? The Anointing of the Sick conveys several graces to a sick person, each flowing from the atoning death of Jesus Christ, for "This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah, 'He took our infirmities and bore our diseases' - Matt. 8:17.
The special grace of the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick has as its effects: the uniting of the sick person to the passion of Christ, for his own good and that of the whole Church; the strengthening, peace, and courage to endure in a Christian manner the sufferings of illness or old age; the forgiveness of sins, if the sick person was not able to obtain it through the sacrament of Penance; the restoration of health, if it is conducive to the salvation of his soul; the preparation for passing over to eternal life.
Does a person have to be dying to receive this sacrament? If not, then when is it administered? A person need not be dying to receive this sacrament. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that the Anointing of the Sick is not a sacrament for those only who are at the point of death. Hence, as soon as anyone of the faithful begins to be in danger of death from sickness or old age, the fitting time for him to receive this sacrament has certainly arrived.
Does God Always Heal?
Today some Christians go to extremes in their expectation of divine healing. On one hand, some say that if a Christian is not healed of all his diseases, this reflects his lack of faith. Others claim that divine healings were only for the apostolic age, when all diseases were healed instantly and automatically. Both of these extremes are wrong.
God does not always heal the physical infirmities that afflict us. Paul preached to the Galatians while he was afflicted by a bodily ailment. He also mentions that he had to leave his companion Trophimus in the town of Miletus because he was too sick to travel. In his first letter to Timothy, Paul urges his young protégé to no longer drink only water, but to use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.
The last passage is especially informative. Not only does it reveal that not all illnesses were always healed in the apostolic age, but it also shows an apostle's practical advice to a fellow Christian on how to deal with an illness. Notice that Paul does not tell Timothy to pray harder and have more faith that God will heal him from his stomach ailment. Rather, he tells him how to manage the illness through medicinal means.
Some argue that healings were always instantaneous and were only for those living during the apostolic age, but that afterward this gift disappeared. The problem with that theory is that the Bible tells us otherwise. For example, when Jesus healed the blind man at Bethsaida, he had to lay his hands upon him twice before the man was fully healed - Mark 8:22-26.
Finally, we have a standing command of the New Testament when James says: "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" - James 5:14-15.
Like all standing commands of the New Testament, this one applies to us today, along with its promise of healing, which is subject, as are all things, to the will of God. As James pointed out just a chapter earlier, You do not know about tomorrow. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, 'If the Lord wills, we shall live and we shall do this or that' - Jas. 4:14-15. We have a promise of healing, but not an unqualified one. Healing will take place when it is the will of God.
Why Doesn't God Always Heal?
If God can heal us, why doesn't he? Scripture answers this question with a question: "Have you forgotten the exhortation which addresses you as sons?--'My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor lose courage when you are punished by him. For the Lord disciplines him whom he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives' [Pr. 3:11-12]. It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline?
"If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers to discipline us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time at their pleasure, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it" - Heb. 12:5-11.
The Value of Suffering
Sometimes God allows us to undergo sickness as a form of discipline and training in righteousness. God often permits these trials for our sanctification, as Paul himself learned when he prayed that God would remove from him an angel of Satan who was afflicting him. "And to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh a messenger, angelos, of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me but he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.' I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me" -2 Cor. 12:7-9.
Even though we must face a certain amount of suffering and affliction in this life, we know God's grace is sufficient to sustain us. All of God's graces, including physical health, are bestowed to lead to the salvation of our souls. The Catholic Church teaches that the sacrament brings the restoration of health, if it is conducive to the salvation of his soul.
God also uses our suffering to help others. If Paul had not become ill while on his first missionary journey and been forced to stop traveling, he would not have stopped to preach to the Galatians, for he tells them. You know it was because of a bodily ailment that I preached the gospel to you at first - Gal 4:13. This is just one example of how God used suffering to do good works. Therefore, if we suffer, we should look upon it as an opportunity to do good works in accordance with God's will, such as offering up our sufferings for our own sanctification and that of the souls in purgatory.
This includes the final suffering of death, which will come for each of us one day. The Bible reminds us, what is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes -James 4:14, and as for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more - Psalm 103:15-16.
The Last Rites
Though the Psalmist teaches us to ponder our mortality, he immediately comforts us by saying, "But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting upon those who fear him, and his righteousness to children's children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments" - Psalm 103:17-18.
In his steadfast love for us, the Lord gives us the sacraments involved in the last rites to comfort us in our final days and prepare us for the journey ahead. These include Penance or confession, Confirmation, Anointing of the Sick . . . and Viaticum, the last reception of Communion for the journey from this life to eternity. The present ritual orders these sacraments in two ways. The continuous rites of Penance and Anointing include: Introductory Rites, Liturgy of Penance, Liturgy of Confirmation, Liturgy of Anointing, Liturgy of Viaticum, and Concluding Rites.
The rite for emergencies includes the sacrament of Penance, Apostolic Pardon, Lord's Prayer, Communion as Viaticum, Prayer before Anointing, Anointing, Concluding Prayer, Blessing, Sign of Peace.
The most important part of the Last Rites is the reception of the Lord in one's final Communion, also called, Viaticum, In Latin means provisions for a journey. This special Communion prepares us to travel with the Lord on the final part of our journey to heaven.