15th Sunday in Ordinary Time
July 15, 2018
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church
Today we read a very familiar text of the Gospels:
Jesus sending out the 12 apostles
to proclaim the gospel, heal the sick and drive out demons.
I’m sure you’ve heard homilies addressing various aspects of this text,
but, and I may be wrong,
but I bet there’s one aspect you’ve never heard a homily about.
And that’s what I’d like to talk about today.
The text tells us: “they anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.”
We hear this and usually focus on the fact that the apostles cured the sick,
but we almost always overlook how they did it: “they anointed with oil.”
Yet in these 4 words we find one of the great treasures of the Church:
one of only 7 sacraments of the Church,
the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.
Now, a “sacrament” is defined as
“an outward sign, instituted by Christ, to give grace.”
It always amazes me when Christians
—specifically Protestants, but also many Catholics—
deny the existence or efficacy of the sacraments.
Because it seems very clear to me that Christ did in fact
give them to us for our sanctification.
For example, He told us that,
“unless a man be born of water and of the Spirit,
he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.”
And then we read how He supervised His apostles baptizing people,
and then commanded them as He ascended into heaven:
“go forth and teach all nations, baptizing them!”
Or take the Eucharist.
He tells His apostles,
“the bread which I shall give ….is My flesh…
…unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man … you have no life in you.”
And then He took bread and said, “this is My body…Do this in memory of me.”
We are physical beings, and as such we communicate and understand and live
through physical realities.
We talk to each other by moving our tongues and then hear with our ears.
We comfort each other with the physical smiles of our mouths,
or with the physical embrace of our arms.
And Jesus knows this, because, as Creator, He made us this way.
And so to communicate His gospel, He doesn’t just send the Holy Spirit.
NO! First He comes in a body, to proclaim the gospel
with the words of His mouth,
and to suffer for our sins by the sacrifice of His body.
And to continue that communication after His bodily ascension into heaven,
He left us physical outward signs to communicate His grace.
On the one hand, we have the words He taught,
written down in scripture so that we can physically read and hear them.
On the other hand, we have the physical body of the Church,
the living family of Christ we can physically belong to and learn from.
Yes, the Spirit comes and works in us,
but first through and using these physical realities.
And the same thing with the sacraments, which Christ established
using physical outward signs to give grace,
to communicate what they symbolize.
So water symbolizes purification and life-giving, and so it’s used for baptism.
And bread symbolizes fundamental nourishment
necessary for sustaining and strengthening life,
and so it’s used for the Eucharist.
And in the ancient world oil was used as one of the most important medicines.
We still use it for that today.
But in the ancient world, oil was also used for many more things than that:
to give light, to cook, to clean, as a perfume, and on and on.
In fact, it was used for so many things that it became
a symbol of the generosity of all God’s gifts.
And so the ancient Jews used it as a religious symbol
of God giving someone a special gift.
For example, kings, and priests and prophets were anointed
to symbolize that God was giving them a gift of His special power.
So Christ took oil, this symbol of both healing and God’s abundant generosity,
and used it as the sign of the outpouring of His grace of healing.
You might say, but Father, that’s an awful lot to pull out of one short phrase.
True, but that is what the Church has always believed, right from the beginning.
And so we go back to Holy Scripture, to the letter written probably 20 years later
by the Apostles James, where he acknowledges this sacrament, writing:
“Is anyone sick among you?
Let him call for the presbyters (or priests) of the church;
and let them pray over him,
anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord:
and the prayer of faith shall save the sick person…
and if he has committed any sins, they shall be forgiven him.”
This was the belief and practice of the apostles:
this is the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick.
So then, what exactly do we believe about this sacrament?
First of all it is a sacrament of healing.
But while this can certainly involve physical healing,
its primary effect and purpose is spiritual healing.
The Catechism summarizes the specific effects of the grace of sacrament, telling us:
— it unites the sick person to the passion of Christ;
— it spiritually strengthens them, giving them peace and courage;
— it imparts the forgiveness of sins,
if the sick person is not able to confess their sins;
— and it restores physical health, if that is part of God’s plan;
— and finally, it prepares the person to pass over to eternal life.
Now, it’s important to remember, physical healing is not the primary purpose
—spiritual healing is.
So I’ve given the sacrament to many people,
and I’ve seen many physical healings,
sometimes spectacular and clearly miraculous.
But most of the times I don’t.
And that didn’t mean the sacrament didn’t work.
Because in almost every case, I’ve see a change in the disposition of the person
as they receive inner the strength to face their illness in faith and in peace.
The power of Christ to endure trial in peace, and even to allow it to purify them,
and draw them closer to Jesus.
The question then comes up, who can receive this powerful sacrament?
Contrary to a popular notion,
Anointing is not reserved to those who are on their death bed.
It is often rightly given on the death bed, and then as part of the Last Rites
we call it the “Last Anointing,” or from the Latin, “Extreme Unction.”
But it’s frustrating to me that sometimes
the first time I hear about a deadly illness
is when the family calls me to give the last rites.
I’m happy to give them, but I think, “if only you had called months before….”
Perhaps there could have been a physical healing,
but certainly their father or grandmother or spouse
would have been given the peace of spiritual healing.
On the other hand, the sacrament is not given
to those who have just any ailment or weakness, no matter how painful.
Rather, it is reserved for those who suffer from an ailment that causes them to
“begin to be in danger of death.”
In other words, generally speaking, unless your already dangerously weak,
if you have something like a bad cold or flu, back pains, or a broken arm,
you are not generally in “danger of death” and so we don’t anoint them.
However, if someone is in the early stages of cancer or heart disease,
or any other serious illness that truly does present a real danger of death,
even if only the “begin[ning]”, these persons may, and should, be anointed.
And if someone is truly weak due to “old age,”
then definition of danger of danger death might apply.
Also, Anointing can be repeated if the person gets worse
or has a relapse of the same illness, or comes down with another ailment.
It can even be given to someone who’s unconscious,
as long as they at least implicitly asked for it when they were able to
–in other words, for example, you go to Mass every Sunday,
so if you were in a coma I would assume that would want the sacrament.
There are however, some limitations on who the sacrament.
First, the priest can’t give it to someone who
“obstinately persists in a manifestly grave sin,” and refuses to repent.
Also, the sacrament can only be received by a Catholic who has
“reached the use of reason,” in other words, over, about, 7 years old,
essentially because before then a child can’t be guilty of sin,
and so, after Baptism, there’s in no need of the spiritual healing of Anointing.
Many argue, “but we want the physical healing of the sacrament.”
I get that, but that is simply not in God’s plan for the sacrament.
But remember, God is not limited by the sacraments, we are:
maybe I can’t anoint a person,
but God can heal anytime, anyplace, according to His Holy will and mercy.
Finally, one other important thing about this sacrament:
like all the sacraments, it can only be given to the living.
Nothing saddens me more than being called after a person has already died
—there’s not much I can do.
I remember one time, when I was newly ordained,
the hospital called at about 4 in the morning,
asking me to anoint a patient who had just died.
Now, I was young and foolish, and already been to the hospital twice that night.
So in my sleepiness and foolishness, I blurted out, “Right now? But he’s dead!”
Now this was stupid, and I knew it as soon as I said it.
So I went and prayed with family and blessed the body.
But I couldn’t give him the grace of the sacrament.
Now, understand, the Church and her priests
never want to deny the sacraments to those may receive them.
So we follow the rule:
“If there is any doubt” whether the person
has reached the age of reason, or has a life-threatening illness,
or is unrepentant, or is dead,
we give the sacrament.
What a beautiful sacrament, what a great gift from Jesus.
And yet, like the short but powerful phrase in today’s gospel,
“they anointed with oil,”
it so often gets overlooked and forgotten.
Of course, this is probably because most of the time
we’re not suffering from life threatening illness,
so we don’t think about it or talk about it.
But now, I’ve talked about it, and now, you think about it.
If you or someone you love needs the sacrament, do NOT hesitate
to call me or Fr. Smith or any other priest, and we would be happy to help.
As we now move more deeply into the Mystery of the greatest Sacrament,
the Most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist,
as we prepare ourselves to receive Our Lord,
let us consider the great gift that this and each of the sacraments is:
that Jesus would so kindly give His little ones’ signs of His active love,
that He would literally show us His love
in such simple but understandable and powerful ways.
And let us pray for an ever-deepening appreciation of
these Divine and precious treasures,
especially the one revealed to us today:
“they anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.”