I am posting this a couple days early, on Wednesday of Holy Week, as I conclude my Lenten series on the sacraments. Today a brief historical reflection on anointing of the sick. In cathedrals around the world, sacramental oils are blessed this week, traditionally on Holy Thursday but now in many places earlier in Holy Week.
Oil and healing
In ancient times, olive oil was commonly used for medicinal purposes. It was applied to injuries to hasten the healing process. In Luke 10:25-37, for example, Jesus describes the compassionate Samaritan who pours oil, and wine, on the man who was beaten by robbers and left for dead.
Jesus the Healer
Jesus told those whom he healed that their faith had saved them. One could say his ministry was “faith healing,” but with no pejorative connotations.
In the synoptic Gospels, Matthew records fourteen instances of healing by Jesus. Mark records six instances. In Mark 6:13, for example, Jesus sends the disciples out and they anointed many sick people with oil and healed them. Luke, traditionally said to have been a physician, recounts thirteen instances of healing. In John’s Gospel, we find three key healing accounts: the healing of a nobleman’s son who was at the point of death; the healing of a man at the sheep-gate pool in Jerusalem; and the healing of the man born blind.
The ministry of healing was an important ministry in the early Christian communities. In New Testament apostolic letters we find a number of examples. In his letter to the Corinthians, written c. 53 CE, Paul mentions that some members of the community have the gift of healing (1 Corinthians 12:9). In the Epistle of James, traditionally attributed to James the brother of Jesus and written before 62 CE, James gave instructions to the Christian community about the ministry of healing: the elders (presbyters) were to be called and were to pray over the sick person and to anoint the man or woman with oil in the name of the Lord (James 5:14-16).
Third and Fourth Century
In a letter from the third century theologian Tertullian (c. 155 – c. 220 CE ), he mentions a Christian who cured with blessed oil. There are no other surviving healing texts from the third century. Liturgical documents from the fourth century, however, indicate that the oil blessed for those preparing for baptism was also used for curing spiritual and physical sickness. And there is a prayer for the blessing of oil for strengthening and healing in the early Christian document called “The Apostolic Tradition,” dating most likely from about 375 to 400 CE. The document was once thought to be the work of Hippolytus of Rome, and was dated before 235 CE when Hippolytus is believed to have been martyred.
Up until the eighth century CE, anointing the sick was a widespread practice. It was done by Christian people for their relatives, by men and women with a reputation for healing, and by monks, nuns, and priests. Especially noteworthy, however, is the fact that anointing of the sick remained primarily a lay practice.
Ninth Century Changes
Indeed, blessed oil had long been regarded as a substance through which People could be healed. But there had been no official ritual for anointing the sick. That changed in the ninth century.
The blessing of the oil became more solemn and more restricted. It was reserved to the local bishop on Holy Thursday. And the anointing of the sick became a strictly clerical ritual. Most significantly, however, the anointing with blessed oil becam an end of life experience, due no doubt to the high mortality rate and the fear of death, at this time.
The sacrament of the sick gradually lost its general healing dimension and became part of the “last rites” before death. Therefore it came to be called “extreme unction” or “final anointing.” Many people who might otherwise have benefited from the sacrament avoided it or waited until death was imminent before requesting it. It had become indeed a priestly ritual for the dying person.
The Council of Trent
Reacting to the Protestant Reformation, the sixteenth century Council of Trent stressed that that anointing of the sick is a true sacrament, that it had been established by the historic Jesus, and that it was especially intended for the people in danger of death. Trent stressed that only priests were the “proper” ministers of anointing.
The Second Vatican Council
The Second Vatican Council (1962 – 1965) reclaimed the original meaning of the Sacrament of Anointing that emphasizes the concern and care of the Christian Community and the healing power of Christ. It is intended not just for the end of life but for any time of serious illness or special need. The Council said as well that “extreme unction” should more fittingly be called “anointing of the sick” because by the 1960s it had become clear that the purpose of the sacrament had originally been for the sick and not just for the dying. The bishops at Vatican II also acknowledged – especially noteworthy — that this sacrament was not a strictly clerical ritual until the ninth century.
I very much resonate with the words of my, now deceased, sacramental theologian friend, Joseph Martos: “The only genuine way forward is to look away from ritual and to look instead at what is ritualized, that is, to look at life rather than liturgy and, indeed, to look at the communal lives of people in the church.”
Today we already have communal liturgical rites, in which the theme and focus are healing. I envision anointing rituals performed by ordained and non-ordained ministers/chaplains for people in hospitals, under hospice care or in homes. And more particularly, I would like to see regular informal rituals performed by parish nurses and lay ministers who regularly visit the sick.
In concluding my Lenten sacramental reflections, and as we now prepare for Easter 2022, I close with a prayer by the great mystic and visionary Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 1179). She was a remarkable woman and indeed a great healer.
O Holy Power who forged the way for us!
You penetrate all in heaven and earth, and even down below.
You are everything in One.
Through You, clouds billow and roll, and winds fly!
Seeds drip juice.
Springs bubble out into brooks.
Spring’s refreshing greens flow — through You — over all the earth!
You also lead my soul into fullness.
Holy power, blow wisdom into my soul
And — with your wisdom — joy.
(I am taking some Easter time off and will return in two weeks.)