The Church is a mother to all who have been redeemed by Christ. As a mother, she seeks to guide, nourish and protect her children in all the aspects of their lives. We, Christians, find our identity as a community, the Mystical Body of Christ. As a community, we celebrate together our joys and sorrows, our successes and failures. And so, when serious illness strikes one of us, the Church as a mother seeks to pray for healing and comfort, and fellow Christians rush to offer their concern and support.
In the Epistle of St. James, the apostle writes: "Is there anyone sick among you? He should ask for the presbyters of the church. They, in turn, are to pray over him with oil in the name of the Lord. This prayer uttered in faith will reclaim the one who is ill, and the Lord will restore him to health. If he has committed any sins, forgiveness will be his. Hence, declare sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may find healing."
Christ has provided his Church with the Mystery of the Anointing of the Sick to aid those who are ill. In the tradition of the Maronite Church, the Mystery of Anointing is preceded by a service known as the Service of the Lamp. The latter consisted of seven stations or watches, each with its own Hoosoyo, incensing and Scripture reading and concluding with the lighting of one of seven candles. The usual practice in the United States at this time is to perform only the Mystery of Anointing.
It should be noted that the anointing ceremony is a communal act presided over by the priest, with the relatives and friends of the one who is ill participating. Also, the Mystery is directed to those who are ill, not only to those who are in danger of death. In former times, the practice in many areas was to confer this mystery as the last rite. As a result, people were sometimes reluctant to call the priest until the last minute (because one is really going to die), or from a misguided idea that the rite would frighten the one who was ill. However, as the prayers of the Maronite service indicate, the presumption is that the one who is ill will be restored to health, and this echoes the witness of the Epistle of St. James cited above.
The Opening Prayers
The first prayer of the rite of anointing recalls that one of the purposes of the earthly mission of Christ was to be a divine healer. While Christ healed out of compassion, His ministry of healing announces the fact that the Kingdom of God is now present in the world in power and that the power of God is determined to be victorious over all manifestations of evil, whether they be physical or spiritual. This reality of divine healing activity in the world is part of the "good news" that is the Gospel of Christ.
The opening prayer also notes that Christ gave this healing power to His apostles when He said to them: "in My name you shall cast out devils, heal the infirm and comfort the burdened." Thus the Church and her ministers are commissioned to continue the work of divine healing through the centuries.
The central theme of the first two prayers is the petition that God remove sins from the soul of the one who is ill and sickness from the body. The connection between illness of the body and sickness of the soul can be understood in various ways. While very often our illnesses are not due to any fault of our own, the existence of disease and suffering is a reminder that the condition of the world is not what God had originally intended. God created a good world and desired that humans enjoy the goods of creation and fellowship with the Creator. However, due to the abuse of freedom and human selfishness, sin entered into the world. Humans in succeeding generations have imitated the sins of their predecessors, and thus sin has accumulated and permeated all facets of world existence. It could very well be that if the world were not so greedy and selfish in its use of the resources of creation, many of our present illnesses or diseases would not exist. Therefore, there is a relationship between the presence of illness and moral failure.
Another connection between sin and bodily illness is seen in the fact that when experiencing sickness we are reminded that we also have sinned, and our physical condition symbolizes often our moral state. The Mystery of Anointing reminds us that while we may be absorbed with the illness at hand, we should always seek first to remedy the condition of our soul.
The opening prayers conclude by giving as the purpose of healing, the recovery of strength of spirit, faith and health so as to be able to give glory to God. Here, again, we are reminded that the highest priority of having a healthy mind and body is to give praise to God. Creation chants continuously of its Creator, and human beings are the representatives of the rest of creation in offering worship. We are most fulfilled as human bings when our minds are directed to our Creator.
The Imposition of Hand
The priest then places his hand on the head of the sick person and offers a prayer similar in theme to the first two. The gesture of imposition of hand symbolizes the calling down of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit represents the creative and liberating power of God. While extending his hand, the priest recalls some of the miracles performed by Christ and asks that Christ himself extend His hand in mercy to free this servant from his or her diseases and afflictions.
The Anointing of the Senses
In the prayer within which the anointing takes place, the priest addresses God the Father as Divine Physician who sent His Son to heal all sickness and to deliver from death and evil. The priest then anoints the face of the one who is ill in the form of a cross, making sure to anoint the eyes, ears, nose and lips. The use of oil for this Mystery is fitting for many reasons. The name Christ means "anointed one", and so the oil represents Christ. Since the Holy Oil was consecrated y calling down the Holy Spirit, it becomes the vehicle of the Spirit and His creative and liberating power. Traditionally, bodies have been anointed with oil to give them strength and for medicinal purposes. It is, therefore, fitting that Christ would choose oil as the material element by which His divine graces of sanctifying, healing and strengthening would be granted. The prayer of anointing continues by petitioning that healing be extended to both soul and body.
The five senses are anointed because they are the points of entry of knowledge into the mind and soul. The senses can be bases for acts of virtues or sources of temptation to sin. They are anointed so that they might serve a sacred purpose.
This prayer of anointing is followed by a hymn where Christ is referred to as the Good Shepherd who comes seeking the lost sheep. The hymn prays that Christ consider His servant as a sheep in His flock. Being the God of goodness whose door is open to sinners, the hymn asks that the servant enter the door of mercies and be brought into the presence of Christ.
The hymn makes special reference to the bodily senses. It prays that Christ protect by His cross the members of the body from evil, and that the eyes be pure in their regards, the ears attentive to His commandments, the mouth chant hymns of praise and thanksgiving, the nostrils breath the perfume of life and not the odor of corruption, the hands knock faithfully at His door and the feet follow the route to His sacred temple. The hymn concludes by praying that the soul with all its senses give glory to the divine holiness, and that it receive forgiveness for all the sins it has committed by the senses of the soul and of the body.
A beautiful aspect of this Mystery is that it seeks to sanctify the whole person body and soul and every aspect of the person, whether it be the faculties and internal senses of the mind and spirit, or the external senses and members of the body. It is not so much an anointing for death but an anointing for a renewed life in Christ.
Following the anointing, the priest again places his hand on the head of the one who is ill. He addresses Christ as the true physician of souls and bodies, and calls upon Him to heal the sick by His grace and the mercy of the One who sent Him. He invokes the name of the Trinity, the prayers of the prophets and the apostles vested in the divine priesthood, the martyrs, confessors, holy fathers and all who have pleased God from the beginning. We can see that this prayer portrays the whole Church in heaven and on earth, the Communion of Saints, interceding for the health of one of its members.
The Mystery of Anointing concludes with a prayer calling upon Christ to visit the one who is sick with an angel of mercy. It prays that the one who is ill be delivered from sickness and evil spirits. It petitions that just as God has healed the mother-in-law of Simon and the hemorrhaging woman, had compassion on the widow who had lost her son, raised Lazarus from the tomb, healed the servant of the centurion by His Word, extinguished the flames of the furnace from the children of Ananias and closed the mouths of the lions in the den with Daniel, so now rich in mercy He will extend His hand and rescue His servant.
This concluding prayer summarizes our Christian faith. It proclaims that God is a God of power, of goodness and of mercy. It recognizes that everything is in His hands. It recalls that He is constantly acting on behalf of His faithful ones. It expresses hope and reliance on the Divine Mercy and Will that all who turn to God in prayer and repentance will be saved.