Monday, June 25, 2012
Sacrament of the Sick...
After Vatican II, the Extreme Unction became less extreme and more commonplace -- it became less the essential last rite for Roman Catholics and mutated into the Sacrament of the Sick. One author has chronicled the change thus:
Following Vatican II, the significance of the change in the name of the sacrament, and the timing of its administration, was drilled into the thinking of seminarians and priests alike. It was no longer called “extreme unction” (the sacrament for the dying), and it was now to be administered as soon as possible in any serious illness. Thus, the sacrament was, practically speaking, reduced to anointing the sick, and it became the “sacrament of the anointing of the sick.” In reality, the norms were very clear that in the phrase, “the sick,” is meant the seriously ill, or those whose health is seriously impaired due to old age. (PCS §9) Unfortunately, the USCCB decided to add their own little footnote to this number 9, which argues that periculose, in the original Latin text, must be translated as “seriously,” rather than “gravely,” “dangerously,” or “perilously.” Then it simply states without any further qualification that the sacrament “should be given to anyone whose health is seriously impaired.”
I especially like these words that Roman Catholic theology and rubric use to frame this:
This anointing also raises up and strengthens the soul of the sick person, arousing a great confidence in the divine mercy; thus sustained, the sick person may more easily bear the trials and hardships of sickness, more easily resist the temptations of the devil ‘lying in wait for his heel’ (Gen. 3:15), and sometimes regain bodily health, if this is expedient for the health of the soul.
Of course, we all know that Lutherans have rediscovered anointing -- not in the extreme nature of this unction but more in character with the Sacrament of the Sick. It has, in both my parishes, brought great comfort to those so afflicted -- not as sacrament but, perhaps, sacramental. It points to the grace if not itself being a means of grace. The author of the noted piece is gravely concerned about the abuse of this sacrament of extreme unction having become somewhat of a novelty, trivializing the idea of impending death and making commonplace and even adding to the general fear of death that causes folks to seek such sign and comfort. I am not so sure. I may not have history on my side but as a Pastor of more than 32 years, I know that we live in times when the separation of sin from disease and death is chronic even among Christians. I also know that whatever we can do to connect the spiritual care of the Gospel to those wrestling with physical affliction (which, unless I am terribly mistaken, is itself the mark of death we carry in our bodies) helps the connection of Christ's death and resurrection to every facet of this mortal life. That is not a bad thing. I think that perhaps we have two distinct rites here -- one for the commendation of the dying in their last hours on earth and the other as the sign of Christ's comfort and strength and grace made perfect even in our weakness and carrying us through the days of our trouble here on earth. It may have one source but it has two distinct foci and the Church would do well to acknowledge this.
Strangely, anointing is very ecumenical with hardly an evangelical supply place without a bottle of anointing oil for sale. It is surely strange that the great divide between side on baptism and the Eucharist finds more common ground on anointing -- significant if not sacramental in authority and use.