Why have the traditional Churches embraced anointing of the sick as a Sacrament? Our understanding of a sacrament as a sign instituted by Christ to give grace has that passage in the letter of James as the most obvious witness, but there’s more. Roman Catholics would accept the written witness of Paul and Peter of the association with the sick as an embrace of the Paschal Mystery:
5 The Lord himself showed great concern for the bodily and spiritual welfare of the sick and commanded his followers to do likewise. This is clear from the gospels, and above all from the existence of the sacrament of anointing, which he instituted and which is made known in the Letter of James. Since then the Church has never ceased to celebrate this sacrament for its members by the anointing and the prayer of its priests, commending those who are ill to the suffering and glorified Lord, that he may raise them up and save them (see James 5:14-16). Moreover, the Church exhorts them to associate themselves willingly with the passion and death of Christ (see Romans 8: 17; see also Colossians 1:24; 2 Timothy 2:11-12; 1 Peter 4:13), and thus contribute to the welfare of the people of God. (See Council of Trent, sess. 14, De Extrema Unctione, cap. 1: Denz.- Schön. 1695; Lumen Gentium 11)
Trent and Vatican II (we blogged on it about two years ago) call on this biblical witness to endorse the ancestry and efficacy of the sacrament. Our best understanding of anointing of the sick as a sacramental practice:
Those who are seriously ill need the special help of God’s grace in this time of anxiety, lest they be broken in spirit and, under the pressure of temptation, perhaps weakened in their faith.
This is why, through the sacrament of anointing, Christ strengthens the faithful who are afflicted by illness, providing them with the strongest means of support. (See Council of Trent, sess. 14, De Extrema Unctione, cap. 1: Denz.- Schön. 1694)
… and we have a description of the liturgical basics:
The celebration of this sacrament consists especially in the laying on of hands by the priests of the Church, the offering of the prayer of faith, and the anointing of the sick with oil made holy by God’s blessing. This rite signifies the grace of the sacrament and confers it.
Like all Sacraments, we acknowledge the Trinitarian character of the sign and celebration:
6 This sacrament gives the grace of the Holy Spirit to those who are sick: by this grace the whole person is helped and saved, sustained by trust in God, and strengthened against the temptations of the Evil One and against anxiety over death. Thus the sick person is able not only to bear suffering bravely, but also to fight against it. A return to physical health may follow the reception of this sacrament if it will be beneficial to the sick person’s salvation. If necessary, the sacrament also provides the sick person with the forgiveness of sins and the completion of Christian penance. (See ibid., prooem. and cap. 2: Denz.- Schön. 1694 and 1696)
Why is anointing seen as a possible healing? Why do we attribute a connection of sin, forgiveness, and penance when we’ve already stated that getting sick is not necessarily a direct consequence of moral wrongdoing? If either or both of these serve a spiritual need, the Holy Spirit is ready to provide.
7 In the anointing of the sick, which includes the prayer of faith (see James 5: 15), faith itself is manifested. Above all this faith must be made actual both in the minister of the sacrament and, even more importantly, in the recipient. The sick person will be saved by personal faith and the faith of the Church, which looks back to the death and resurrection of Christ, the source of the sacrament’s power (see James 5:15), (See St. Thomas Aquinas, In 4 Sententiarum, d. 1, q. 1, a. 4, quaestiuncula 3) and looks ahead to the future kingdom that is pledged in the sacraments.
The Church makes its case for anointing as a sacrament, and as a spiritual discipline to assist the sick. Are you convinced? Do you see any problems or holes in this reasoning? Keep in mind that the Reformation Communities have pretty much rejected the sacramentality, if not the practice of anointing. Then we have the Evangelical witness of faith healing. Do these intersect or overlap? Are they in any way complementary? Where the sacramental practices have been discarded, has the Holy Spirit been nudging for the needs of the sick and the witness to Christ provided by both the caregivers and the sick persons themselves?