Monday, June 25, 2012

Sacrament of the Sick...

I grew up understanding the idea of last rites for the dead.  Even if Lutherans did not have a sacramental rite for the dying, we knew to call the Pastor when death was near.  As a Pastor I have been at several hundred bedsides of the sick unto death.  For several dozen, the last words they heard this side of glory were the words of the Commendation of the Dying and the blessed final stanza of Lord, Thee I Love With All My Heart.  Who cannot be moved by the powerful imagery of those words calling the angels to come and bear us home to the bosom of Abraham?

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.


Janis Williams said...

I have had non-Lutheran friends look askance at me when I tell them of the anointing of the sick in our church. True, many evangelicals either practice aointing now, or are considering it. Somehow, there is a disconnect between a sacramental anointing and their non-sacramental one. Just another manifestation of Romaphobia?

As for anointing the dying/last rites it must be part of the evangelical illness. They are consumed with this life. Dying is something about which they never think.

I hope the Savior will allow me presence of mind when I lie dying. I hope to be aware enough to make a final confession, receive the body and blood of our Lord, and the anointing.

Fr. Jon M. Ellingworth said...

As an LCMS pastor, I have used anointing of the sick unto death in the context of the rite for the Commendation of the Dying. I connect the anointing with Holy Baptism, reminding the soul, and loved ones present, of the promise made, kept, and soon to be fulfilled, through Holy Baptism into Christ. I remind them that they have been sealed unto Christ and that He will never leave them or forsake them and that nothing can separate them from the love of God in Christ Jesus. It has proven to be extremely comforting to both the dying and the family. Additionally, the use of scented oil leaves a lingering odor, along with the palpable oil upon the forehead, as a lingering reminder of God's grace and mercy. Indeed, the combination of Word, touch, and smell involved in anointing impacts the totality of a person, a soul.

I have also used anointing on occasion with the rite of Visiting the Sick and the Distressed, but, in practice, I have reserved anointing for those who were dying or at great risk of death.

Joanne said...

Messiah = Christ = Anointed One

Christians = adherents and/or slaves of the Anointed One

Christians = Anointers

Anoint = apply ointment, unguent, salve, mirrh, scented olive oil

Pieper lists anointing as a custom of Baptism, a mitteldinge, not to be be changed arbitrarily but by churhces in concert.

The most vivid anointing in my mind is David's by Samuel, by which the kingship was reassigned to a young shepherd.

I get it that anointing with sweet smelling oils was very important to the peoples living in the Biblical lands, but personally I don't get it.

I understand putting neatsfoot oil on a new baseball glove and I most often will rub fine olive oil on a chicken before I put it into the crock pot. But, I don't get the religious sensation, or romantic, or exotic, or whatever about rubing oil on people. If I get oil on my face, I get a distinct urge to wash it off, right away. In my worldview, oil on my forehead is sticky and yucky.

But, I come from a culture bred in humidity. When the dry winter cold fronts push all the way to the gulf, I get nose bleeds and sinus headaches from the dry air. Mostly putting oil on makes us hotter and damp.

Now, I have no problem with water and washing as in Baptism, but you don't smear with dirt before you wash off the baby. You take a perfectly clean baby and you ritually wash the sin off and out of them. Washing is an action I get, I can feel the need for it. Wash me and make me clean. But, smear oil on me and make me queen, nah, I can't feel that.

And when was Jesus actually smeared with oil to make him the new king and by whom? He is the Anointed one, so where's the big story about his anointing? Am I just forgetting it. Was he annointed at His presentation or baptism?

When and by whom was the Anointed One anointed?

It comes to mind now that some years ago my North Carolina cousins, the ones with the goats, got me into coconut oil. I loved putting just plain coconut oil in my bath. It was wonderful, and not particularily oily afterwards.