The healing of the sick has been an important component of Christian life and ministry since the earliest writings of the New Testament. The Gospels present us with many instances of Christ and his disciples going among the people in order to heal them in mind, body and spirit. In fact we should be aware that healing, as it is often portrayed in scripture, is closely intertwined with forgiveness; disease and illness with the destructive effects of sin and evil. “They had come to hear him and be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them” (Luke 6:18-19). These healings, of course, announced a more radical healing; the ultimate victory over sin and death of Christ’s death and resurrection.
The Church commonly points to two scriptural references as forming the basis on which the sacrament of anointing rests; firstly Mark 6:12-13; “They went out and preached that people should repent. They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.”Secondly James 5:14-15; “Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven.” In the apostolic writings of the early Church we see that this important ministry was indeed continued, in various forms, and as such this sacrament has remained to the present day, a vital part of the life and ministry of the Church.
As with other sacraments, the discipline of the Church has changed over time in response to numerous factors, and we have seen important shifts in the theology underpinning the Church’s view of its reception. In the first centuries of the Church we find no canonical or liturgical regulations for the anointing of the sick; but that the ministry continued is clear, and we find reference to it in a number of writings, such as those of Hippolytus and Tertullian, who make reference to prayer and anointing. By the eighth century, and especially from the ninth, the sacrament became increasingly connected, theologically and practically, with that of confession and the Eucharist. The reasons for this were understandable; the sacrament came with onerous life-long obligations comparable to penitential obligations and as such was increasingly given only when the recipient was nearing death. Secondly, it became bound heavily with the sacrament of penance itself. Anointing was becoming the sacrament of the dying. The order in which these sacraments were given until the thirteenth century was confession, followed by anointing, and then the receiving of the Eucharist. From then on the sacramental order changed, until recently, with anointing being given last.
The Second Vatican Council, in its general revision of liturgical practice, called for a renewal in the understanding of anointing. Indeed, the term ‘anointing of the sick’ was chosen as being more fitting and the prayers to be recited included reference to physical healing. The Council encouraged anointing at the onset of illness, rather than waiting for the sick to reach the point of death. Perhaps less understandable was the decision to simplify the process of anointing itself; it can be argued that, through the reduction in the number of places anointed, we have lost some of the physical significance of the sacrament which the previous rite made clear. Of particular significance, however, was the decision to re-instate the older sacramental order of the ‘last rites’; accordingly Viaticum was again placed last with anointing taking place after confession and absolution. In cases of severe sickness and of those nearing death, this ordering represented a much needed shift, not only of the place of anointing, but of the Eucharist in the process.
The sacrament today continues to emphasise the human person as body and soul, in need of healing both spiritual and physical; though theology and practice have shifted through time, this has never been wholly lost, but was in serious need of being re-examined and affirmed in recent centuries. If we are to see healing aright then we need to see this integral healing as rooted firmly in the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ. By grounding this sacrament in the Paschal Mystery we are able to see the relationship of the Sacrament of Anointing, and all the sacraments, to the redemptive work of Christ through His Church.