I don’t wish to alarm you unduly, but I hope you’re aware that today’s Mass includes the anointing of the sick?
We all know how that works, don’t we? Unexpectedly, your Uncle Jimmy or Aunty Breda, who hasn’t been to Mass for twenty years, is suddenly rushed into hospital and the doctor looks at you darkly. You learn your relative has about 36 hours left in this world and you know what you have to do. You call the priest; the priest brings the holy oil, gives the blessing, and your loved one goes quietly into the hands of God. So when the priest comes through the door to give the Sacrament of Anointing, you know the Grim Reaper is waiting just outside… and that’s how our Catholic faith has worked for generations.
You know what? It’s not meant to be like that!
I mean yes, if you call a priest to someone’s deathbed God will forgive their sins through the Sacrament of Anointing, and that will help them go to heaven, but we’re not exactly following the instructions Our Lord left for us!
Can you think of even one example in the Bible where Our Lord Jesus Christ, or one of his apostles, was called to a sick person, and said to them ‘Your sins are forgiven – now go to heaven?’
No. You won’t find that anywhere. The only person who got a free pass straight to Heaven was the Good Thief. Remember him? He confessed next to Jesus when they were both being crucified – and though his actions might have been sick, his body was perfectly fine until they nailed him there.
So what did Our Lord do when he was on earth? He opened the eyes of the blind, helped lame people to walk – and when his friend Lazarus died, he brought him back from the dead. We’ve just the Gospel where Jesus tells his apostles to go out and do the same thing – heal the sick. And they did!
We read in the Book of Acts how Peter and John used the name of Jesus to heal a man who couldn’t walk, begging outside the Jewish Temple. Both Peter and Paul raised young people from the dead. And in our first reading today, St Paul is on the island of Malta, where he is asked to do something about a very upset stomach – and by God’s grace, he can!
What do all of these healings have in common? Each time, either the sick person or one of their friends goes in search of a minister. They have hope that God’s power can touch their lives, and they’re not afraid to ask for it. It might be a blind man crying out ‘Jesus have mercy on me’ – or a desperate father pleading for Jesus to come to his dying daughter – or a bold group of friends making a hole in a roof so they can drop their mate right in friend of Jesus’ nose! But their hope drives them to take a step of faith.
A few years ago, I was going to visit a friend, who lived outside my parish, for her birthday. She rang to ask if I could bring the holy oil to anoint her friend who was suffering from back pain. When I got there, I carried out the rite of Anointing. When I did so, two remarkable things happened: the woman in pain received a momentary experience of God’s loving presence… and the pain went away.
Now in my nearly twelve years of priesthood, that was only the second time that a remarkable physical recovery quickly followed an anointing, and the first time, as far as I know, that someone had a personal experience of God’s presence. But these touches of God’s presence can and do happen; the Sacraments become more fruitful when celebrated in a community with strong faith, and that day I think it was significant that a believing friend of the sick person had the faith to ask for the Sacrament.
Now, I know that many of us do pray when someone in our family is sick. Some of us might even have called the priest early in someone’s sickness for them to receive the Sacrament. I don’t want anyone to feel condemned if they’ve prayed for a long time and not seen any healing. God is the one who decides where and when the gifts of healing are given. I know that if we don’t ask, we don’t get. If we do ask, we may get – so today is an opportunity to ask and see what God will do.
If the god you believe in couldn’t heal someone through the Sacrament, your god is too small.
If the god you believe in wouldn’t heal someone through the Sacrament, your god is not the one Jesus called Father.
If the god you believe in hasn’t healed someone through the Sacrament, isn’t it time to give God another chance? Jesus teaches us to be persistent in our prayer.
The Sacrament of Anointing the Sick is God’s gift for those who are sick to the point where our lifestyle is affected. It’s not for coughs and colds which will pass in a week or two. It’s for afflictions of our bodies and of our minds. If you suffer with migraines, or depression, or anything chronic in your head which puts you off balance, that’s a good enough reason to come forward. If your body is past its peak and daily living involves aches and pains, that’s also enough reason. At this service, no-one is going to ask you why you want to receive the Sacrament – that is between you and God. We have hope that sometimes God will work a wonder in our body or in our mind as a sign of the Kingdom to come. And we have certainty that everyone who is anointed receives both the forgiveness of sins, and a promise of God’s strength to endure.
Remember, you don’t have to have a Mission for a sick person to be anointed. If there’s someone who’s sick and who’s not here this afternoon, they can ask their parish priest to come at any time. But for you who are here, it is time to take a step of faith. Come!