Swimming the Tiber 21: The Sacraments: Anointing of the Sick

And [they] were throwing out many demons, and [they] were anointing with olive oil many sickly [people] and [they] were treating [them].

– Mark 6:13 (my translation)

Is anyone among you sickly? Let [him] summon the elders(presbyters) of the church, and let [them] offer prayers upon him, having anointed {him} with olive oil in the name of the lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sicklit. toiling / working [man], and the lord will wake him; and if [he] is [one] having madeor has made; this periphrastic construction focuses on his current state–i.e., that he is in a state of sin–rather than the action specifically errors, [it] will be forgiven for him. Confess, therefore, to each other [your] errors and prayer on behalf of each other, in order that [you] may be cured.(cure [each other’s illnesses]) An efficacious petition of a just man is very powerful.

– James 5:14-16 (my translation)

To be perfectly honest, I don’t have much to say about this sacrament. As a Protestant, I never put much stock in anointing sick people–in a twist of position, I considered it a little too unscientific–but I didn’t have any sort of problem with the practice. It is Scriptural, after all.

In the Catholic Church, where miracles are evaluated fairly regularly, the idea that a holy process could cure the sick isn’t so far-fetched. In fact, the biggest problem in the Church regarding this sacrament is what to call it. The older name for the sacrament (starting in the early-to-mid twelfth century) is “Extreme Unction,” literally meaning “last anointing.” The point of the word “extreme” here is not entirely clear; it could refer simply to being the last in a series of anointings (a Christian is anointed at baptism and confirmation as well), but–especially in modern parlance–it is more likely due to the sacrament’s association with the “Last Rites.”

The phrase “Last Rites” should not, by the way, be used synonymously with this sacrament. The Last Rites actually refer to the administration of three sacraments–penance (or confession, or reconciliation), the Eucharist (because it is the source and summit of our faith, so let’s receive it as often as possible), and “extreme unction” or the “anointing of the sick.”

The name was changed in the mid-twentieth century to avoid the association. Properly, the sacrament can be received any time a person is in a dangerous position, medically speaking. Naturally, the deathbed fits this description, but so does the surgical table or a cancer diagnosis.

The only other controversies I can imagine around this sacrament involve questions of a loving God and the nature of suffering, but that is beyond the scope of this particular post. If you want to read more about the Catholic position on this sacrament, the Catechism of the Catholic Church discusses it beginning in paragraph 1499 and continuing through 1532. If you have specific questions, of course, feel free to ask them, and I will seek out the answers if I don’t know them already.

Otherwise, enjoy having a light week, and look forward to next week when I talk about something quite a bit more controversial: sacramentals and the declaration that some objects are holy before the Lord.

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