Throughout his ministry on earth Jesus reached out to the sick and suffering. He showed great compassion for those who suffered in both physical and spiritual ways, and he was concerned for the wellbeing of all people. He visited and healed the sick and many people came in search of him, hoping for comfort, hoping for healing.
He healed them in many different ways. Sometimes in very quiet, private intimate circumstances and at other times from a distance, without even seeing the person concerned. He healed them by touching them or sometimes with a simple word.
Have you ever felt a pang of self indulgence when you pop into The Body Shop! Do you really need that Peppermint Foot Lotion, the Blueberry Bubble Bath or the Fuzzy Peach Shower Gel? And then there are the oils, hundreds of them, each carrying a different property, promising healthy skin, supple joints, calmed nerves and a good circulation...we could, it seems, live for ever!
Of course, none of this is really new. It is the discovery of ancient practices. For thousands of years, oils have been important in both the religious and the secular world for all kinds of different things. Today, the Church still uses oil in the celebration of the Sacraments.
One of those sacraments is the Sacrament of the Sick, in which there are three important facets:
the prayer of faith
the laying on of hands
anointing with the Oil of the Sick.
The Church’s use of oil in this sacrament is used to soothe and comfort the sick, to restore the tired and weak. After laying his hands on the head of the sick person, the priest anoints the forehead and hands.
‘Through this holy anointing,’ he says, ‘may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit.’ He then continues, ‘May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up.’ What was that about living forever?
Who is it for?
Many people think (quite wrongly) that to indulge in the sacrament of the Sick they have to be on their death bed! Anyone, in fact, can request the Laying on of Hands and anointing with holy oil. People are anointed in sickness, before an operation, at a time of crisis, when they are anxious, the list goes on! It is celebrated in church, at home, in a hospital ward, indoors, outdoors: in fact, anywhere where Christ’s healing presence is sought, where the strengthening power of the Holy Spirit is desired.
The prayer for healing is many and varied: as varied as the needs of each sick person—and the healing received is as varied, too. For some, the healing presence of Jesus will bring strength and faith, it will help them to fight against the debilitating effects of their illness. And there is always the prayer, too, for a full healing from the illness itself, for a full recovery, always and everywhere giving thanks to God for raising us up and giving us a glimpse of the love that he lavishes upon us.
The Prayer of Faith
In the letter of St James, we read: ‘If anyone among you is sick, call for the elders, and let them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick person.’ (James 5:14-15) Yes, we gather in faith, and we gather in a spirit of prayer, commending the sick to God, surrounding them with hope and confidence in the saving love of God in Christ.
Laying on of Hands
Through the laying on of hands we feel the touch of Christ, the Healer. The gospels contain a number of instances when Jesus healed people by laying hands on them or even simply by touching people or being touched by him. ‘They brought the sick with various diseases to him,’ we read in the gospel according to Luke, ‘and he laid hands on every one of them and healed them.’ The Laying on of Hands is also a physical gesture that the person is the subject of the prayers of the people, as well as being a sign of blessing. It is also an invocation—a calling for the Holy Spirit to come upon the sick person: to comfort and strengthen, console and heal.
When we receive anointing on the forehead and palms (and, if appropriate, the affected part of the body) we receive a sign of healing, strengthening and the presence of the Holy Spirit. At a time when people are searching for healing and wholeness in all kinds of ‘alternative’ ways it would do us well to remember the sacraments of the church: for when we celebrate the sacraments we receive the healing touch of the Lord, who alone brings peace and the promise of his Spirit. What other alternative is there?!
This is an age old and heartfelt question and, for many people, the presence of suffering and illness can often be a stumbling block to faith in God. After all, why would a God of Love allow such things to happen? For others, however, when they experience suffering or illness, they often lean closer to God for comfort and strength and, yes, for the hope of healing.
Jesus himself embraced the whole human experience. He laughed and loved, he enjoyed the beauty of friendship, he ate and drank, he travelled and talked, he gazed open eyed at the wonders of the world and he experienced sadness and suffering too, even to the point of death.
There are so many reasons why there is illness and sickness in the world and there are many questions for which we search (sometimes unsuccessfully) for answers. Whilst we experience all that life has to offer and all that comes our way, we are accompanied by one simple and yet very demanding thing: Love. We reach out to those who are in need, to those who are caught up in tragic circumstances, to those who suffer. And as we reach out we discover the healing and loving touch of the Lord.
Sometimes, suffering and illness is caused by human activity. Perhaps we become ill as a result of something we have done or the way we live, or even as a result of someone else’s activity. It is part of God’s plan that we should fight against sickness and carefully seek the blessings of good health, so that we can fulfil all that we have been called to do. Yet, we should also be prepared to complete (as St Paul says) what is lacking in Christ’s suffering for the salvation of the world as we look forward to Creation being set free in the glory of the children of God. (See Colossians 1:24; Romans 8:19-21)
From reading the Bible we can find countless incidents of Jesus’ love of the sick and how they were transformed by him.
This ministry was continued by his apostles and has been handed to the church. So the Sacrament of the Sick is the ministry of Christ through his church, reaching out with love in every age and in every generation, showing compassion and love, standing alongside us and providing his healing and consoling touch.
The Church’s Ministry of Healing
Through the Sacraments of the Church, we can experience Christ's healing and reconciling love, by receiving the sacrament of the Eucharist, making one's confession, receiving the ministry of prayer and laying on of hands, and anointing with holy oil.
God's healing love is not, of course, confined to these means. We believe that God can and does work in so many wonderful ways, but the sacramental gifts which he offers to us are beautiful ways in which we can receive his healing touch.