One of my favorite parts of visiting nursing home residents and those in need on the street is offering them the Sacrament of Unction.
Also known as Ministration to the Sick, or simply prayer and anointing, the Sacrament of Unction is one of the seven Sacraments of the Church, and it is a sacred time for the one administering, the one receiving, and the Holy Spirit to come together in prayer for healing, and anointing with consecrated oil (olive oil, often scented with natural herbs and extracts).
The one administering Unction lays their hands on the one being anointed — usually on top of the head or on the shoulders, and says a short prayer: “I lay my hands upon in the name of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, beseeching Him to uphold you and fill you with His grace, that you may know the healing power of his love.” There are different versions of the prayer, and in many traditions it is extemporaneous.
After prayer, a small amount of oil is applied to the forehead of the recipient in the sign of the cross, usually with these words: “I anoint you with oil in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
This is a beautiful time of prayer and service to those in need. They could be sick physically, emotionally, psychologically or spiritually. Regardless, we pray for healing, knowing that God can heal, and knowing that death is our ultimate healing — our release from the bonds of this life into life eternal. The outcome is God’s and God’s alone.
Unction is not the only sacramental time of anointing. We are anointed at baptism. We are anointed at the administration of Last Rites, before death. Unction serves as a powerful bridge between these two bookends in our lives.
Unction is beautiful. But, it is beautiful and reassuring only if it is grounded in Scripture, and in the reassurance of Christ working through the Holy Spirit. It only means something if we practice and receive it based on the firm belief of Christ working through us.
The principle Scriptural foundation for Unction is found in James 5:14–15: “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.”
That’s a powerful passage on Christ’s promise to work through us, when we work in His Name, with faith in His power. But it is by no means the only passage that calls us to open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit, particularly through anointing.
Today’s readings, for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, give us some powerful imagery of anointing, and how opening ourselves up to the Holy Spirit heals us spiritually, calling us out of darkness into light.
In our reading from 1 Samuel, the prophet is sent to examine and anoint the chosen king of Israel from among the sons of Jesse. Seven of Jesse’s sons are brought before Samuel, and each time the answer is the same: “The Lord has not chosen any of these.”
Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.”
Now, Samuel has been through all the likely candidates among Jesse’s sons. And there’s only one left — David, the one tending the sheep. In that day and age, tending the sheep was about the lowest job you could have in society. It was a job for social outcasts and those unable to do anything of real importance. It was definitely not a vocation you’d turn to if you were looking for a king.
But, God does not see as we see. And he calls us to look outside our worldly vision, and see with the eyes of the Holy Spirit. And this is what Samuel does:
And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.” He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward.
That anointing, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, was possible not through the spirit of this world. It was possible because Samuel and David were willing to let go of themselves, and act through the Spirit of God.
When we open ourselves up in this way, whether it’s through anointing, our daily prayers, or certainly in reception of the Eucharist, we open ourselves up to the power of the Holy Spirit, to the power of Christ, which overcomes this world, which overcomes death itself.
As David tells us in Psalm 23, no matter what evils surround us in this world — in the Valley of Death — we will fear no evil, because of God’s presence. We can pray with the assurance of the Holy Spirit:
“You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over. Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”
When we live opened up to the Holy Spirit there is no Valley of Death. There is only the peace of God’s presence — regardless of what the world does to our bodies.
As St. Paul points out in today’s reading from Ephesians, we step out of the darkness of the Valley into the light of God’s presence when we open ourselves to the Holy Spirit, for:
everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”
When we rest not on the power and the outcomes of this world, but on the power of Christ and the ultimate outcome of our Resurrection with Him, we truly awake into new life. Of course this refers to us waking from our death into eternal life. But, it also means waking up from darkness while we’re still alive, of stepping out of spiritual blindness into the light of Christ.
In our Gospel reading for today, the disciples and the Jewish authorities look at the blind man and assume he must be blind because of his sins, or the sins of his parents.
A lot of times, when we’re surrounded by darkness in this world, it’s easy to think God is punishing us in some way. But, Jesus reminds us the darkness isn’t God’s punishment. God doesn’t bring us pain or darkness. But, God can use these dark episodes to demonstrate the power and beauty of His love for us. Jesus says in the Gospel, regarding the blind man:
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
Christ is the Light of the World. But, we have to open ourselves up to Him working through us. Again, in our Gospel reading, Jesus shows us God working in divine ways through the touch of the Holy Spirit, working through flesh and the materials of this world:
When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.”
Jesus anointed the man with saliva and mud, and he was healed. But — and no symbolism is unintentional in the Gospel — the man is healed through washing at a pool called “Sent.”
And he is sent. He’s called to answer for his healing before the Jewish authorities. He proclaims the healing power of Christ. And he’s rejected and ridiculed for it. They answer him: “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?”
In the ways of this world, the power of Christ to heal — physically, and more importantly, spiritually — is mocked and rejected. How could a sinner be saved? How could the blind see?
When we go out to proclaim Christ’s healing power — of physical or spiritual illness — we likely will face doubt and ridicule. But, we are called to go. We are healed by being Sent. And when we cannot go in body, we are called to go in prayer — to go in spirit.
There are literal, physical meanings to Christ’s healing power. And God has the power to heal physically.
But, what’s more important is God’s power to heal spiritually. And especially during times when we cannot be with, and touch, and physically anoint those we love and serve, we must lean ever-harder on the power of the Holy Spirit to work in our stead. When we cannot go into the world to anoint with oil, we must go in spirit, and anoint in prayer.
Let us pray.
We pray for the Holy Spirit to work through the hands of nurses, doctors, nursing home attendants, hospice and home health workers and first responders as they care for those in need. For those who are sick, we pray for the Holy Spirit to work through the powers of medicine and science, that the Good Lord in His beneficence gave to the world. We pray for the power of the Holy Spirit to work through the minds and hands of researchers, working to advance the boundaries of medicine. We pray for the Holy Spirit to carry Christ into the hearts of all who feel themselves cut off in the Valley of Death, that they may step from the Valley into Light. And, when we cannot physically anoint those in need, we pray for the Holy Spirit to anoint them through our fervent prayers. In the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.