What is the Anointing of the Sick?
When Jesus commissioned the Twelve, they went out into the world and saw immediate results. In St. Mark’s Gospel we learn that they “anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them” (Mk 6:13). They must have been astonished at the power flowing through them. Yet it was a mere shadow of the task that still lay ahead of them. For, as Jesus made clear elsewhere in St. Mark’s Gospel, it is a greater work to forgive sins than to heal even the gravely ill. (Mk 2:9).
Jesus healed people with dire illnesses and disabilities as a sign of spiritual healing: “…that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sin” (Mk 2:10). The physical signs were there for the sake of a spiritual reality. They were a concession to human weakness. In fact, after the apostles had witnessed many such marvels, Jesus assured them that they would accomplish “greater works than these” (Jn 14:12).
In the beginning of their ministry, the apostles, like Jesus, restored bodily health. But it was a sign of the deeper healing they would accomplish, through the Church, after Pentecost. We catch a glimpse of the Church’s ministry of spiritual healing in the Letter of St. James: “Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders [presbyters, or priests] of the Church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven” (Jas 5:14-15). This is the Sacrament we know today as the Anointing of the Sick. But it’s fair for us to ask today why physical illness should be an occasion for spiritual healing. There are many good reasons, not least that grave physical suffering is often accompanied by difficult spiritual trial. When we are in extremis, we are far more likely to be tempted to doubt God’s goodness and power—or even His existence. Job’s wife sincerely expected her husband to give in to despair and “curse God” (Job 2:9).
Sacramental oil gives us the grace we need to face such trials. Consider what the symbol of oil suggested to the early Christians. Oil healed, and oil strengthened. It was a base for many medicines. It was also a liniment used by athletes in the arena. Olive oil was a rub down that strengthened wrestlers for a contest and enabled them to slip away from the grip of their enemies. For Christians, all of these worldly values are symbolic of the spiritual value of anointing. Anointing both heals and strengthens us spiritually, and enables us to slip away from the devil’s grasp and endure our contest with him—and, more than endure, to prevail, to be “more than conquerors through Him who loved us” (Rom 8:37). The anointing even brings about that great marvel that Jesus alluded to in St. Mark’s Gospel: the forgiveness of sins. Thus we can face even certain death with a serene and peaceful conscience, in the reasonable hope that death will be our gateway to eternal life.
Sometimes, the sacramental anointing will bring about physical healing as well, if healing will be conductive to the salvation of the soul. That’s wonderful but unusual; and actually, it’s far less a marvel than the Sacrament’s ordinary effects. Anointing is far more likely to give us what we really need: humble acceptance of our suffering, in union with the suffering of Christ and in atonement for sins, especially our own. Anointing helps us transform physical suffering into something more deeply remedial, something truly redemptive.