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Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Sacrament of Unction - Annointing of The Sick

This past week, a bit of tragic news came about my mother-in-law in Indiana that she was diagnosed with breast cancer.  After asking several of my friends to lift her up in prayer, one of my friends (also a distant relative) at the little Pentecostal church in my hometown of Hendricks, WV, offered to have a prayer cloth sent to her, and that got me thinking.  Prayer cloths are very scriptural, and the verse that sanctions their use can be found of course in Acts 19:11-12, where God used cloths to bring healing AND deliverance from evil spirits through prayer cloths that had been anointed.   For the past 100 or so years, prayer cloths have also been a part of Pentecostal churches and their devotional practices, and there is a reason why this practice was revived.  Granted, there are those who use these as talismans, or they make money off of them by deception, but that still doesn't take away their use and validity in the Body of Christ.  The Pentecostals do this of course as an act of faith - the word used is a "point of contact," and that too is part of Christian faith as well.  However, does this practice fit into sacramental/liturgical worship?  That is what we are going to discuss now.

Even a person with a basic knowledge of Catholic teaching knows that we have seven sacraments.  I personally prefer the Eastern Christian term mysteries, but the idea is the same - a visible sign of an inward grace granted by Divine mercy, and a truth that cannot be explained.   The seven Mysteries, or Sacraments, are as follows:

1.  Baptism
2. Chrismation (or Confirmation)
3. The Eucharist
4. Holy Matrimony
5. Holy Orders
6. Reconcilliation
7. Unction

The last one, called Holy Unction, is often wrongly assumed to be just the "Last Rites" for the dying, but in reality it entails a lot more.  It is a Mystery of the Church, and it has as its Scriptural foundation James 5:14-15, which in the KJV Bible says the following:

Is anyone among you sick?  Let him call for the elders 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, and the Lord will raise him up.  And if he has committed sins, he shall be forgiven.

These verses tell us what the real Mystery of Holy Unction is all about, and not only is this a Mystery of faith in sacramental/liturgical churches, but also it has been a part of Pentecostal prayer and devotional practice for decades.  Almost every Pentecostal denomination has a strong statement, based in part on this verse, supporting the Scriptural belief in divine healing.  Another verse this relates to as well is the one where it says "By His stripes we are healed" (I Peter 2:24).   Another connection made in the passage from James is that sickness and sin are both taken care of by this sacrament - how many of you saw that?   In other words, it is in the truest sense the "Full Gospel," in that through anointing in the name of the Lord with oil, sin and sickness are both forgiven and healed.  God wants for us to be reconciled fully to Him as His people, and this is the way He chose to initiate that.  Again, this is a practice going back to the earliest times of the Church, with this quote from St. Cyril of Jerusalem giving validity to the practice:

The oil of gladness with which Christ was anointed was a spiritual oil; it was in fact the Holy Spirit himself, who is called the oil of gladness because he is the source of spiritual joy. But we too have been anointed with oil, and by this anointing we have entered into fellowship with Christ and have received a share in his life. Beware of thinking that this holy oil is simply ordinary oil and nothing else. After the invocation of the Spirit it is no longer ordinary oil but the gift of Christ, and by the presence of his divinity it becomes the instrument through which we receive the Holy Spirit. While symbolically, on our foreheads and senses, our bodies are anointed with this oil that we see, our souls are sanctified by the holy and life-giving Spirit.  (see http://www.crossroadsinitiative.com/library_article/57/Anointing_with_the_Holy_Spirit____Cyril_of_Jerusalem_on_Confirmation.html for the full text)

As St. Cyril wrote also, the anointing with oil also has a sanctifying aspect to it as well, meaning that it cleanses our sins and heals our bodies.  That is one reason why over the centuries it has almost exclusively come to be associated with the Last Rites in the Roman Church, as many people sought this sacrament just before they passed on in order to prepare them for reception into the hereafter.  However, it is not just for the deathbed, but for anytime it is needed. 

Being we attend a small traditional Anglo-Catholic parish here in Tampa Bay, one very important thing our rector does every Sunday after the Eucharist is to offer this unction to parishioners.  He prays for the sick, anoints them with Holy Chrism, and many have been healed by him doing this.  Fr. John doesn't do that like some televangelist either, but is following a very ancient Christian practice with Biblical roots.  And, it is the Sacrament of Holy Unction.  Now that we have established its Scriptural and historical continuity, let me now briefly explain how the practice is observed.

In general, when Unction is given, it is usually for someone who needs a physical healing, but can also be for deliverance from bondage or for peace of mind when worries and other issues plague us.  A validly-ordained minister should always administer the sacrament though, and here is why - I Timothy 5;22 admonishes us not to lay hands suddenly on just anyone, as it could cause trouble.  Oppressive spirits - harassing demons of depression and other things - can be transferred to a person whose faith may not be as strong, and thus cause a large number of problems.  Also, we are likewise told elsewhere to test spirits, and to not have someone's hands laid on us indiscriminately either.  That was unfortunately a weakness in the past in some Pentecostal and charismatic circles, as you had people running around laying hands on everyone else, and as a result mayhem and confusion happened.  That is why, I have come to believe, that it is acceptable to practice the laying on of hands in three circumstances:

1.  The ordained ministry - we must do things "decently and in order," submitting to the authority of the local church on that

2.  Within the family setting - God has given a special dispensation for couples, in particular fathers, to pray over the home and those in it, as the husband/father is the priest of the household.  The wife, likewise, can have some authority here as well, for if the husband is the elder and priest of the household, his wife is like a deacon.  Besides, in that setting, we know the spirituality of our spouses, and therefore it can be banked upon to be pretty safe.

3.  In the absence of a clergy at a meeting, in particular an informal prayer gathering or something, the people in the group are usually well-known to each other, and thus it is acceptable for brethren within the same assembly to pray over each other in this way.

The manner in which it is normally done is to anoint either the forehead, or if sickness the affected part of the body, with a blessed anointing oil in the sign of the cross, and then the prayer is to be prayed over that person "in the name of the Lord."  The prayer can be from a liturgical text or it can be what is called a spontaneous ejaculatory prayer, which is what many charismatic prayer groups do.  It is also good to have a member of the clergy administering it if possible, and at least 2 other laymen assisting with the prayer.   This lends to the Scriptural "when two or three are gathered together in My name" idea, and thus the power of prayer is in concord with the Body in general. 

Back to prayer cloths, if one is used, it must be prayed over and blessed by a member of the clergy, and these are used in cases of physical infirmity.  Since this is often a practice for a person who is unable to be in a church setting, it is important to instruct the recipient on its use and to understand the Scriptural mandate behind the use of a prayer cloth.  Also, a strong admonition must be given to advise the recipient that these cloths are not magic talismans, and to use them as such would mean occultism, which is forbidden for Christians to engage in.  The recipient of the prayer cloth places the cloth upon the affected area of the body requiring healing, and prays a personal prayer of healing "in the name of the Lord." If another person is present who is a Christian, they can and should be in agreement with the prayer, as there is power in numbers who pray.  A person who receives and uses a genuine prayer cloth in the correct manner may not be healed overnight, but they should notice a difference in the very near future.  The Bible is also clear on that too, because although miraculous healings can and do happen, Mark 16:18 tells us that if the believer lays hands on the sick, they shall recover.  God alone determines miraculous healings, but He does and will heal the person who is believing for a healing one way or another.

This was a brief teaching, and so much more can be said about this subject, but this is just to address the fundamentals and give you an idea of what Holy Unction is all about.  Some believe in and practice this Mystery of our faith without even realizing it, but it is OK because God does honor the righteous.  God bless you until next week, and if any of you feel led to do so, please keep my mother-in-law, Gloria  Webster, in your prayers.