Last week in church, we Roman Catholics heard and meditated on the first part of the fifth chapter of the Letter of James. Other Christians quite possibly heard James 5:13-20 proclaimed from the pulpit. Needless to say, it might serve us well to consider the entire chapter, perhaps even the entire letter. Here is part of a sermon preached last week at Wesminster Abbey by the Anglican priest Nicholas Sagovsky on James 5:13-20. This excerpt concerns St James’ call that the presbyters should pray over and anoint a sick person, and “the prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up. If he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven” (5:15). Therefore, James instructs, “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (5:16).
To understand James’s instructions about anointing, we need to understand the symbolism of oil. Anointing with oil is a symbol and sign of God’s blessing. In the twenty-third psalm, the psalmist says, ‘You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows’ (Ps 23: 5) and then goes on to say, ‘Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever’. The whole of Psalm 23 is a wonderful meditation on what it means to be anointed and blessed by God. Psalm 133, which is even shorter, uses the picture of anointing as a picture of the blessing of unity amongst Christians: ‘How very good and lovely it is when kindred live together in unity! It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron! It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion’ (Ps 133:1-3). This is exactly the point James makes when he tells us to confess our sins to one another: reconciliation and unity is a wonderful thing. It is itself a blessing of God, and it brings health, it brings fruitfulness, to our lives.
What then can we expect if we are anointed, with prayer for healing, as the Church has done from the beginning? I believe we can expect the Risen Christ to work by his Spirit as he worked in his earthly ministry. The Church has from the beginning believed that the first sort of healing we need is forgiveness of sins – and this is what Christ came to bring. James is just as interested in the forgiveness of sins as he is in healing: we tend to think we can have one without the other. In the Gospel, healing of soul and of body go together. Reconciliation with God and with one another is itself a powerful form of healing. Having said that, we can expect, with James, that sometimes, through anointing, there will indeed be wonderful healing of the body or the mind that goes beyond anything medical science can explain. Mostly, though, the healing that comes with anointing will come through the God-given skills of medical science. Sometimes, as in the ministry of Jesus at Nazareth, there will be no evident healing at all.
It helps to look very closely at what James says. He says that the prayer of faith will ‘save the sick’ and that ‘the Lord will raise them up’. Given the background of the story of Elijah, it seems clear that James’ first meaning is that the Lord will restore physical health. But we have to appreciate that in Christian teaching the language of salvation applies beyond death. In the language of the New Testament, Jesus was ‘saved’ from oblivion after the crucifixion and ‘raised’ to the right hand of God. In the same way, James’ language of ‘salvation’ and of being ‘raised’ may apply beyond death. If there is no physical healing in response to our prayers this does not mean our prayers are useless. We take it in faith that they are powerful and effective, and that they play their part in sickness being transformed from something absolutely negative and destructive to something which may bring good to the sick person and to those round about. Even in continuing, debilitating sickness and in death we may experience God’s ‘salvation’. Indeed, thinking back to Psalm 23, it is precisely in such dark times (in ‘the valley of the shadow of death’) that we may find in a special way the presence of God’s goodness and mercy.
As Christians who worship in a tradition rich in sacramental symbolism, once we have been anointed with oil at baptism and confirmation, only on two other occasions do we normally receive the sign of the cross traced upon our forehead. The first is on Ash Wednesday, when we are signed with ash, and we are told ‘Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return’. The second is when we are sick. No words are given for anointing with oil. It is the anointing itself which says: ‘Remember you are God’s beloved child, and your God is your salvation.’