Monday, February 7, 2011

A Brief Overview of Anointing and Prayer

Prodded by recent visitors from the north country (Cheryl Magness) I thought it might be a good thing to acquiesce to her request and explain a bit about how we do anointing and prayer.  Maybe first I should do a bit of history (not in depth but just to frame things up a bit).

Oil (olive oil) either alone or scented has been used for thousands of years and was well known to Biblical culture as well as to most nations of the Mediterranean and Middle East.  Oil is mentioned many times in the Old Testament.  We have oil on the lamp stand of the temple, oil exchanged as tribute by kings, and offered in the temple as sacrifice.  Perfumed oil is also mentioned for use by the high priest for ritual anointing with implications for consecration.  There is also the oil used to anoint the king and therefore set him apart for his office.  Finally, we are reminded that Messiah(Christ) means anointed one and this reveals the messianic and christological implications of oil.  In practical matter, oil was a staple of the household.  It was used in cooking, cleaning, grooming, and had medicinal usage (similar to the way we might use vaseline or triple antibiotic vaseline).  From all of this we see that oil has connotations of holiness, strength, vitality, life, healing, and prosperity (born of God's blessing and provision).

From the New Testament we recall how the woman anointed Jesus with the perfumed oil (expensive and precious) and the several mentions of anointing indicate a continuation of the Old Testament images and usages of oil.  From Mark 6:13 we see oil particularly used in conjunction with Jesus' sending out of His disciples to preach and heal in His name.  While we do not find reference to Jesus' use of oil in this way, this reference shows a clear connection between oil and the healing that comes from Christ.    The other major text is James 5:14 in which the command is given to call for the presbyters (Pastors) of the Church, pray over the sick, anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord and the prayer of faith will save the sick man.  Here the connection between illness and sin is further deepened by the inclusion of "if he has commented sins, he will be forgiven..."

First John 1:20 offers us the intriguing implication that chrism or anointing was used in conjunction with baptism.  Although many commentators speak of this in merely symbolic terms, anointing has always been associated with the baptismal liturgy and its association with this verse is credible.  "The chrism/anointing which you received from Him abides in you.... as His chrism/anointing imparts you knowledge of all things..." Second Corinthians 1:21 also connects these dots.  Here St. Paul speaks of God who establishes us in Christ (baptism) and has anointed (chrismated) us and put His seal upon us and given us His Spirit.

For the growth of this in the early Church, consult Origen and St. John Chrysostom.  Cyril of Jerusalem also is a source here.  By the third century nearly every baptismal rite included anointing (chrism).  Hippolytus records the blessing of oil for use in baptismal chrism and for exorcism.  While it is true that this became two separate rites in the West (baptism and chrism or confirmation) the East has always retained their connection together.  Jump a millenia or so and you find that oil is retained in Luther's baptismal rite as well (though it dropped out of usage among many Lutherans so much so that it was reintroduced in the twentieth century by the liturgical movement).

Finally, I could write many paragraphs on the subtle and profound connection inherent in the word "to save" in Greek -- a word which can also be translated "to heal."   In this way we circle back to the connection of our maladies with the common history of sin and the fall and of our common remedy in the Savior who is come to restore the fallen, forgive the sinners, and bestow everlasting life upon a people marked for death.

I could go on but let me cut to the chase.  This anointing of the sick is sacramental but not a sacrament.  Let me explain that.  It has a sacramental character to it but it does not contain the promise of grace and does not have the explicit command of Christ that Lutherans normally use to define a Sacrament.  This is not an anointing in the way the word is used by the evangelicals or pentecostals (a charismatic phenomenon) nor do we as Lutherans have "healers" who perform physical healings.  We do believe that God physically heals and we also believe that this healing is but a glimpse of the perfect healing of the new flesh after the resurrection that imparts to us life without death or disease.  We have long called the Eucharist the medicine of immortality, along with the early Church.  So, while we anoint, we do not give this anointing the status of a sacrament nor does it carry with it the implicit promise of physical healing or removal of the affliction (mental, emotional, spiritual or physical) and that our prayer for such healing is also answered when the grace sufficient for our endurance is given us by God.

So on the fifth Sunday of the month, we offer folks the opportunity, immediately following the distribution of the Eucharist, to come forward to the rail, to commend their need and burden to the Lord, with the assurance that His grace is sufficient for their need and He will grant them healing or endurance to bear up under their affliction or pain.  In this way, we acknowledge that our gracious God is not oblivious to our need or condition and that, as Scripture promises, that we can confidently cast our cares on Him for He cares for us.  So our people come with chronic physical conditions, ongoing afflictions of body or spirit, pain, emotional and spiritual conditions, and such.  I meet them at the rail, anoint them with oil as James tells us, whisper into their ears the Word of the Lord that is His means of grace to us, and pray with them that God will grant them perfect healing, endurance under their affliction, and sufficient grace for their need, according to His good and gracious will.  In this way I use this as a means of providing pastoral care within the very context of the Sacrament that is our medicine of immortality and encourage them to remain close to the means of grace where this grace is accessible to us and where the promise and pledge of this grace is imparted to us as Christ has instituted.

In practical manner it takes but a few minutes out of the service, it shows forth to the folks who sit with them in the pew that these folks have wounds and needs which they are commending to the Lord in prayer and for which we are called to support them in encouragement and prayer, and, it does so within the context of the Sacrament in which the perfect healing of God's richest grace is imparted to us in the bread which is Christ's body and the cup of His blood.


Rev. Eric J Brown said...

If I can ask - how did this practice arise in your congregation?

Paul said...

We have offered the Service of The Word for Healing at various times past as well. Thank you for the eloquent post!

Pastor Peters said...

I began this in my previous parish, some 25 years ago, as a way of dealing with the issue of a Service of the Word for Healing that came out with LBW and was making the rounds. It seemed to me that our concern for healing needed to be connected to the Sacrament. In this context I have found great benefit and blessing to those faced with chronic afflictions and who desired to acknowledge God's healing and sustaining grace with them even when the affliction did not go away...

Anonymous said...

"Christ means anointed one and this
reveals the Christological
implication of oil."

According to Acts 10;38, "God anointed Jesus with the Holy Spirit"
Christ was not anointed with oil but
with the Holy Spirit. Yes, Christ
was anointed to be our Prophet, Priest and King and O.T. traditions
of these offices sometimes involved
oil. But oil is not necessary for
the Holy Spirit to anoint Christ.

Cheryl said...

Pastor, I am a little behind on my blog reading and I just now saw this. Thank you for writing it! I'm glad our visit and my question prompted it!