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Friday, November 19, 2010

The Sacrament of Comfort

For the past several days, I have had severe migraines.  While I've been able to half-way function, the headaches still manage to inflict their slow, dull pain. It is not something that I would want to wish on anybody.   Tonight, my spiritual director graciously imparted the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick on me.  I was a little sheepish about asking him because I was unsure if migraines were  just cause.  He assured me that they were.

As he was imparting the Sacrament, my mind travelled back some 17 years ago to the time when my late mother was going through what would be the final rounds of chemotherapy to fight off ovarian cancer.  Almost every time she would go to her treatments, I would make sure that she would receive the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.  My freshly ordained Paulist priest friend would impart the Sacrament on her.  Hearing the words of Sacred Scripture and having my friend pray over her and annoint her brought so much comfort to my mom.  Even though my friend went a bit overboard the first time he annointed her with oil (he joked around about the fact that he finally got a visual of what David meant when he said "you annoint my head with oil, my cup overflows), the prayers he uttered, the passages from Sacred Scripture that he read and his overall demeaner towards my mother really made an impact on both her and me.  She came away from that first annointing (and the rest) with a grace, serenity and resignation that I had not previously seen.

I suppose that this was the reason why I was so reticent about asking my spiritual director for this sacrament.   While migraines are excrutiatingly painful for me, I did not think that they were even in the same universe as cancer.   But, I am also reminded of a homily that my spiritual director delivered wherein he preached about the true malady that affects all of us:  sin.  With every physical healing that Jesus worked, there was an additional, deeper component to the miracle:  the personal conversion of the person who was sick.   Jesus always equated the healing of the individual with the forgiveness of their sins.  He did not merely come to restore physical health:  He came to restore wholeness, holiness to man.   

Pope Benedict makes this point quite clear in Verbum Domini when he writes about the Word of God in relation to the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick:

In the case of the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick too, it must not be forgotten that “the healing power of the word of God is a constant call to the listener’s personal conversion”.[220] Sacred Scripture contains countless pages which speak of the consolation, support and healing which God brings. We can think particularly of Jesus’ own closeness to those who suffer, and how he, God’s incarnate Word, shouldered our pain and suffered out of love for us, thus giving meaning to sickness and death.
When God created Adam and Eve, He made them whole.  However, with the Fall, sin entered the world and with sin, sickness and suffering.  Jesus came to restore wholeness and holiness to man.  He came to make us whole and holy.  "By his stripes, we were healed," so writes Isaiah in the Fourth Oracle of the Suffering Servant. 

In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus tells us that the Samaritan bathed the victim's wounds with oil and wine.  Wine, because of its properties, served as an antiseptic, but, oil was the balm that soothed the wounds.   In the Sacraments, the Church uses the elements of wine and oil.  During the Mass, the priest consecrates the wine, along with the bread and these become the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of no less than Christ, Himself.  That Precious Blood is our antiseptic against the wounds of sin.  St. John writes in Revelation that the white-robed company of martyrs washed their robes in the Blood of the Lamb.  During the Chrism Mass, the bishop consecrates the oil of Chrism, an aromatic oil used for priestly ordinations and confirmations.  He also blesses the Oil of Catechumen and the Oil of the Sick.   This last oil is what the priest uses to anoint the infirmed.  It is that balm that soothes and comforts the person who is sick. 

While receiving the Anointing of the Sick may not necessarily mean that the infirmed will get a physical healing, their souls, we pray, will be brought to both wholeness and holiness.  That is the greatest kind of healing. 

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