The Third Sunday of Advent: The Anointing of the Sick at Mass

Today’s readings
#adventnd #anointingofthesick #healing #mercy

Today’s readings and liturgy call us to rejoice.  That’s the reason for the rose-colored vestments and the more joyful tone of today’s readings.  This is called Gaudete Sunday: gaudete being Latin for “rejoice,” the first word of today’s introit or proper entrance antiphon which says: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice.  Indeed the Lord is near.” The Church takes that antiphon from the words of the second reading today.

We can especially rejoice in the healing presence of our God. Healing is, in fact, a sure way that we know that Christ is present. Jesus said as much in our Gospel today when he addressed the followers of Saint John the Baptist:

Go and tell John what you hear and see:
the blind regain their sight,
the lame walk,
lepers are cleansed,
the deaf hear,
the dead are raised,
and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.

Those who lived in and around Jesus in those days had to be amazed at all they were seeing. Indeed, many of them were moved to conversion of heart and rejoiced in all they were seeing.

I think, though, that it can be hard to rejoice when we are suffering from illness or injury. Sometimes when we’re sick, it can even be hard to pray or find God in anything. A wise person once told me that you have to make sure that you’re praying when you’re well, because when you’re sick, it can be hard to pray. But it those times of illness or injury, that’s when you need to rely on God the most. If you have been praying when you’re well, then that relationship is going to be something you can lean on when you need healing.

Indeed sometimes, for us, healing is a little harder to see. We may have been dealing with a persistent, chronic, or even terminal health condition for years. Or maybe we have been at the side of a loved one who has been ill and for whom we have prayed long and hard, but have seen no healing. If that’s where we are right now, Jesus’ words are still our hope. Because healing comes in all sorts of ways, according to what Jesus sees that we need most. That might come in the form of something other than physical healing: perhaps the healing of relationships, or the conversion of our hearts. In every case, though, Christ promises to be with us through it all if we turn to him in our hearts. And he keeps his promises, giving us grace that sees us through whatever stormy waters we are wading.

And so we gather in faith today to express the prayers of our hearts, asking for God’s mercy, praying prayers, perhaps, that we haven’t been able to utter for some reason or another.  We gather today to place ourselves in God’s hands and experience his healing, in whatever way is best for us.  The Apostle Saint James tells us that we should turn to the Church in time of illness, calling on the priests to anoint the sick in the name of the Lord, knowing that God desires healing, and that the prayer of faith will save the sick and raise them up, forgiving them their sins.

The Church has the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick because of who Jesus was and because of what he came to do among us.  Jesus was that suffering servant from the book of Isaiah’s prophecy, the One who took on our illnesses and bore our infirmities.  He was spurned and avoided, oppressed and condemned, all the while giving his life as an offering for sin, justifying many, and bearing their guilt.  God always knew the frailty of human flesh, but when he decided to come to his people, he did not avoid that frailty; instead he took it on and assumed all of its effects.  This is why we treat the sick with dignity: our frailty was good enough for our God, and we know that the sick are very close to our Lord in their suffering, because he suffered too.

So today if you are sick in any way – body, mind, or spirit, – if you suffer from addiction, chronic pain, or emotional anguish – I invite you to approach the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick after this homily. The Church teaches that this sacrament is not to be saved only for the moment of death. No, we are to approach it when we are seriously ill, or before surgery, and yes, in the hour of death. If we have been anointed before, we can be anointed again if necessary, even in the same illness, if it has been some time or especially if the illness has progressed. In this sacrament, we pray for healing in body, mind, or spirit, in whatever way God judges to be best for us, and we trust in his sacramental grace and presence with us in our suffering.

Just a procedural note: During the ritual of anointing we will ask those who are to be anointed to stand, and I will impose hands over all of you at one time for a few moments in silence. Then, when it comes time for the anointing, we will come to those who are not ambulatory and are seated in the front of church. Those of you not seated in front will come forward as for Holy Communion, and we will anoint you in the center aisle.

Today we rejoice because our Lord is near.  We light that third, rose-colored candle on our Advent wreath and we see there’s not many candles left until the feast of the reason for our rejoicing.  We rejoice, too, that we can come to him for help and sustenance and companionship on the journey to healing. We look forward to celebrating the Incarnation, perhaps the greatest and best of the mysteries of faith.  That God himself, who is higher than the heavens and greater than all the stars of the universe, would humble himself to be born among us, robing himself with our frail flesh, in order to save us from our sins, heal our brokenness, and make his home among us for all eternity – that is a mystery so great it cannot fail to cause us to rejoice!  Indeed that very presence of God gives hope even in our most difficult moments – THE LORD IS NEAR!

These final days of Advent call us to prepare more intensely for the Lord’s birth.  They call us to clamor for his Incarnation, waiting with hope and expectation in a world that can sometimes be dark and scary.  These days call us to be people of hope, courageously rejoicing that the Lord is near!  Come, Lord Jesus!  Come quickly and do not delay!

The Fifth Sunday of Lent: Anointing of the Sick During Mass

Today’s readings

Yesterday I presided at the funeral of the mother of one of my friends. It was a beautiful gathering because she and her sister basically took the last few weeks off of their work commitments to be with her during her last days. Not everyone can do that, but it did give them a lot of peace. What also gave them peace was that their mother was anointed during her illness, which prepared her for her entry into eternal life.

Saint James tells us: “Is anyone among you sick? Let them call on the priests of the Church and let the priests pray over them in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick persons and the Lord will raise them up. And if they have committed any sins, their sins will be forgiven them.” And so this is the charge that the Church uses to direct the Anointing of the Sick. We do that as a Church because we are convinced that it is only our faith that can give us solid foundation when we are sick or dying.  It takes an act of faith in God’s care for us to really navigate illness and pain.

This Mass is that act of faith.  In the Anointing of the Sick, the Church proclaims courageously that there is no malady that cannot be addressed by our God; that he can take on whatever ails us, bind up whatever is broken in us, and bring forth something new, something beautiful, something perhaps unexpected.  Today we gather as the Church and place our faith in the healing of our God.  We acknowledge that the healing God brings us doesn’t always make all of our illness go away, but we also don’t rule that out.  We trust that God, who sees the big picture, knows what is best for us and desires that we come to the greatest good possible.  We also trust that God’s grace is enough to help us address illness, infirmity, pain, suffering, and the ardors of medical treatment.  We know that our God walks with us in good times and in bad. There is nothing that can take away God’s love for us.

I love the words of the prophet Isaiah in today’s first reading:

Remember not the events of the past,
the things of long ago consider not;
see, I am doing something new!
Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
In the desert I make a way,
in the wasteland, rivers.

Our lives can bring us all sorts of pain and illness; so much so that we can get mired in all of that and forget that the current page that we’re on is not the end of our story. God is always doing something new. It might take a leap of faith, which is perhaps uncomfortable, but God even brought forth water in the wasteland of the desert for his people to drink during the Exodus. He can certainly bring us to something new and better than what we’re currently enduring. That’s the theological virtue of hope.

In today’s familiar Gospel reading, Jesus heals the woman caught in the act of adultery. Sure he saved her from being stoned to death, but that’s not the healing I’m talking about. The healing came in his last words to her: “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.” He has healed her from the woundedness of her sins. Jesus saw what was really broken in her, whatever it was that brought her to this sad day, and he set her free from it, and called her to repentance. Because it is repentance that opens us to God’s mercy and any real healing.

And so it’s our need for healing that brings us together in faith today. We gather today to express the prayers of our hearts, perhaps prayers we haven’t been able to utter for some reason or another. We gather today to place ourselves in God’s hands and experience his healing, in whatever way is best for us. The Church has this sacrament because of who Jesus was and because of what he came to do among us. Jesus was that suffering servant from the book of Isaiah’s prophecy, the One who took on our illnesses and bore our infirmities. He was spurned and avoided, oppressed and condemned, all the while giving his life as an offering for sin, justifying many, and bearing their guilt. God always knew the frailty of human flesh, but when he decided to come to his people, he did not avoid that frailty; instead he took it on and assumed all of its effects. This is why we treat the sick with dignity: our frailty was good enough for our God, and we know that the sick are very close to our Lord in their suffering, because he suffered too.

Large portions of the Gospel see Jesus caring for the sick, responding to their faith, healing them from the inside out. The sick sought him out, they called out to him as he passed along the way, they reached out to touch just the tassel of his cloak, their friends brought them to Jesus, even lowering them down from a hole in the roof if the crowds were too big. He was moved by their faith, always responding to them, healing not just their outward symptoms, but also and perhaps most of all, the inner causes of their illnesses, forgiving their sins, and giving them a place in the Kingdom.

Jesus still does this today. He still walks with us in our suffering, whether we are to be cured or not, letting us know that we don’t suffer alone. He still responds to our faith, curing our brokenness and healing our sinfulness. If he judges that it is best for us, he heals our outward symptoms too, perhaps even curing our diseases, and he gives us all a place in the Kingdom, if we have the faith to accept it and to receive the healing he brings us.

Jesus continues his healing mission through the Church in our day. Certainly the priests provide the sacraments to the sick and the dying. But also, the entire people of God are called to the corporal work of mercy of caring for the sick. Every act of mercy and every prayer for the sick is part of the healing work of Jesus. Doctors and nurses and therapists and other caregivers also provide the healing ministry of Jesus, particularly when they are men and women of faith. This ministry is also provided by our many Ministers of Care, people who visit the sick and bring them the Eucharist in their homes, in hospitals, and in nursing homes. The Church’s ministry to and with the sick is the visible sign of the love of God at work in our world and his care for all those who are suffering.

We don’t know if you all will walk out of this holy place healed of all your diseases. But we can promise that you will be freed from your sins, healed from the inside out, and that your Lord will always walk with you, even in your darkest hours. We have faith that healing will come at some time in some way, of the Lord’s choosing, for your good, and for the glory of God. That’s why we are here today. That’s why we celebrate this beautiful sacrament with you today. We know that our Lord deeply desires to heal us. And we know that every healing moment is a miracle, made possible by God’s great love poured out on us when we make an act of faith.

Third Sunday of Advent: Anointing of the Sick During Mass

Today’s Readings

Today’s readings and liturgy call us to rejoice.  That’s the reason for the rose-colored vestments and the more joyful tone of today’s readings.  This is called Gaudete Sunday: gaudete being Latin for “rejoice,” the first word of today’s introit or proper entrance antiphon which says: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice.  Indeed the Lord is near.” The Church takes that antiphon from the words of the second reading today.

And there is reason to rejoice.  The prophet Zephaniah tells the people Israel that, even though their sins had displeased the LORD to the point that he gave them over to the hands of their enemies, he has relented in his judgment against them and will deliver them from their misfortune.  Their deliverance is so complete that the LORD will even rejoice over them with gladness!

In his letter to the Philippians, Saint Paul calls us to rejoice too.  The reason he calls for rejoicing is that “The Lord is near.”  He was referring to Jesus’ return in glory, of course, which they thought would be relatively soon in those days.  While he never saw that in his lifetime, we may.  Or perhaps our children will, or their children.  One thing we definitely know is that the Lord is near.  He does not abandon us in our anxieties, in our frailty or our illness, but instead listens as we pray to him and make our petitions with thanksgiving.  Our Lord is as near to us as our next quiet moment, our next embrace of someone we love, our next act of kindness.  Rejoice indeed!

I think, though, that it can be hard to rejoice when we are suffering from illness or injury. Sometimes when we’re sick, it can even be hard to pray or find God in anything. A wise person once told me that you have to make sure that you’re praying when you’re well, because when you’re sick, it can be hard to pray. But it those times of illness or injury, that’s when you need to rely on God the most. If you have been praying when you’re well, then that relationship is going to be something you can lean on when you need healing.

Saint John the Baptist in today’s Gospel reading puts the precursor of the Church’s healing ministry into play. He traveled around proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Because sin is what truly makes us sick. If we have sin in our lives, then we have a broken relationship with God, and that doesn’t serve us well in our time of need. Jesus came to put a stop to that cycle of sin and death. When he healed the sick, he always said, “Your sins are forgiven.” It’s not that he missed the point or somehow didn’t get that the person was sick, not sinful, but more that he wants the healing to be a complete one: a healing from the inside out.

And that kind of healing is a good one for us to approach during this Holy Year of Mercy. During this year, we will have the opportunity to reflect on God’s mercy in very deliberate ways. We will have opportunities, as we always do, to practice the corporal and spiritual works of mercy: feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, forgiving offenses. But we’ll also be called to enter into mercy, through the sacraments of healing: Penance and Anointing of the Sick, which is what brings us here today.

Pope Francis, in the document that called for the Year of Mercy, spoke of Jesus as the face of the Father’s mercy, a truth that he says may as well sum up the Christian faith. Then he says that we need to contemplate God’s mercy constantly and in many ways. He writes:

It is a wellspring of joy, serenity, and peace. Our salvation depends on it. Mercy: the word reveals the very mystery of the Most Holy Trinity. Mercy: the ultimate and supreme act by which God comes to meet us. Mercy: the fundamental law that dwells in the heart of every person who looks sincerely into the eyes of his brothers and sisters on the path of life. Mercy: the bridge that connects God and man, opening our hearts to the hope of being loved forever despite our sinfulness. (Misericordie Vultus, 2.)

And so in our faith, we gather today to express the prayers of our hearts, asking for God’s mercy, praying prayers, perhaps, that we haven’t been able to utter for some reason or another.  We gather today to place ourselves in God’s hands and experience his healing, in whatever way is best for us.  The Apostle Saint James tells us that we should turn to the Church in time of illness, calling on the priests to anoint the sick in the name of the Lord, knowing that God desires healing, and that the prayer of faith will save the sick and raise them up, forgiving them their sins.

The Church has the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick because of who Jesus was and because of what he came to do among us.  Jesus was that suffering servant from the book of Isaiah’s prophecy, the One who took on our illnesses and bore our infirmities.  He was spurned and avoided, oppressed and condemned, all the while giving his life as an offering for sin, justifying many, and bearing their guilt.  God always knew the frailty of human flesh, but when he decided to come to his people, he did not avoid that frailty; instead he took it on and assumed all of its effects.  This is why we treat the sick with dignity: our frailty was good enough for our God, and we know that the sick are very close to our Lord in their suffering, because he suffered too.

And so today we rejoice because our Lord is near.  We light that third, rose-colored candle on our Advent wreath and we see there’s not many candles left until the feast of the reason for our rejoicing.  We rejoice, too, that we can come to him for help and sustenance and companionship on the journey to healing. We look forward to celebrating the Incarnation, perhaps the greatest and best of the mysteries of faith.  That God himself, who is higher than the heavens and greater than all the stars of the universe, would humble himself to be born among us, robing himself with our frail flesh, in order to save us from our sins, heal our brokenness, and make his home among us for all eternity – that is a mystery so great it cannot fail to cause us to rejoice!  Indeed that very presence of God gives hope even in our most difficult moments – THE LORD IS NEAR!

These final days of Advent call us to prepare more intensely for the Lord’s birth.  They call us to clamor for his Incarnation, waiting with hope and expectation in a dark and scary world.  These days call us to be people of hope, courageously rejoicing that the Lord is near!  Come, Lord Jesus!  Come quickly and do not delay!

The Twenty-third Sunday of Ordinary Time: Ephphatha!

Today’s readings

Jesus’ ministry on earth was all about healing.  In today’s gospel, he heals a man who has been deaf and mute with the word of command: “Ephphatha!” – “Be opened!”  So you’ve heard me talk about this kind of thing before. The healing is not here just for us to say “how nice for that deaf and mute man.” The healing he intends, the command, “Be opened!” is for us too.  Mark brings us this story in his Gospel because Ephphatha is what Jesus is about.  He is about healing, and opening up a way for those who have been at odds with God to be back in relationship with him.  So whether the obstacle has been a physical illness or a spiritual one, he commands ephphatha, that the way be opened and the obstacle obliterated, and the illness of the broken one bound up and the way made straight for the person to be in communion with God.

St. James today invites us to take a look at the issue from another angle.  Have we pre-judged people who are not like us when they come to the Church, or to us in any way?  Do we look down on those who don’t dress like us, or don’t speak like us, or don’t act like us?  Do these people have illness that needs to be healed?  Or is it we that have the illness, being unable to see them as Christ does, as brothers and sisters and children of God?  So whatever the illness is today, whether it is ours or someone else’s, Jesus commands it: ephphatha, be opened, that nothing may be an obstacle to the love of God and the healing of Jesus Christ.

Since the readings lead us to a place of healing, I want to take this opportunity to speak of one of the sacraments of healing, namely the Anointing of the Sick. I want to do that because I think it’s a sacrament we don’t think of much, until someone is near death, and that’s not what the Anointing of the Sick is all about. In the days prior to Vatican II, that was the understanding of the Sacrament. It was called Extreme Unction, Latin for “Last Anointing” and that’s not what it was supposed to be all about.

The impetus for the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick comes from the letter of Saint James. It says: “Is anyone among you sick? He should summon the presbyters of the church, and they should pray over him and anoint (him) with oil in the name of the Lord, 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.” (James 5:14-15) The sacrament is about healing: physical, sure, but also spiritual. Having God’s presence in the sacrament with us in our time of illness is of great value – just ask anyone who’s been through it!

So I’d like to identify a few times when it would be appropriate to have the Anointing of the Sick. The first is before surgery that is either life threatening itself, or is for the healing of some illness or injury. Very often people will call, and they might come to a daily Mass before their surgery or the weekend before their surgery, and I’ll anoint them after Mass. This is a wonderful time to receive the sacrament, because they’ve just been to Mass and have received the Eucharist. The combination of those sacraments is a great source of grace and healing.

Another time someone might be anointed is if they’ve come to the hospital with a life-threatening illness or injury, perhaps even after an accident. Or perhaps a patient is hospitalized for an addiction or mental illness. Very often there’s a priest on call at the hospital who can do that, or if it’s one of the local hospitals here, I’ll be called to go over. Being anointed at that time of crisis can be a great source of peace to both the patient and their loved ones.

Another time for the Anointing is when a patient is home bound, or after they’ve come home from having surgery and there is going to be a long time of rehabilitation. Then I might come to the person’s home, anoint them, and then we can arrange for a parishioner to come give them Holy Communion each week. We have a number of parishioners who help us with that ministry, and it keeps the patient connected to the parish and to the Lord during difficult days. I always like to say, when you’re well, you can come to us, and when you’re sick, we can come to you.

The final time for the Anointing is the one that most people think of, and that is near death. At the time of death, we have what is known as the Last Rites. The Last Rites are a combination of three sacraments: the sacrament of Penance, the Anointing of the Sick, and Viaticum, which is Latin for “bread for the journey,” one’s last Communion. If at all possible, it’s good if the patient is well enough to participate in all three sacraments, but very often that’s not the case. Then we just do what we can of them and trust in God’s mercy.

It’s important that we know about the illness so that we can care for the patient. In today’s society that means a family member or the patient themselves, must call us. Hospitals can’t do that any more, due to privacy laws. So it’s very important that we know, and know soon enough that we can respond. With only one priest at the parish, it’s hard for me to respond at the spur of the moment because of other things going on, but I do want to be there. And if, unfortunately, a patient dies before the priest can get there, there are still prayers we can do. Sometimes we don’t know that the patient is going so quickly. I had that happen just recently, and we still prayed and I was there to spend some time with the family.

The healing work of Christ is what the Church is all about. Today, he Jesus continues to work through the Church to bring healing to all those who need it. He cries out “Ephphatha” that we might all be opened up to his healing work and that every obstacle to relationship with him might be broken down.

Anointing of the Sick During Mass

Today’s readings: Isaiah 61:1-3a, Psalm 147; Romans 8:18-27, Matthew 8:5-17

I had the opportunity yesterday, as I often do, to visit with two parishioners who are ill and hospitalized.  In their illness they, along with their families, did as we should always do: they called on the priests of the Church to come and give them the sacraments of healing and be present to them at a difficult time.  We do that as a Church because we are convinced that it is only our faith that can give us solid foundation when we are sick or dying.  It takes an act of faith in God’s care for us to really navigate illness and pain.

This Mass is that act of faith.  In the Anointing of the Sick, the Church proclaims courageously that there is no malady that cannot be addressed by our God; that he can take on whatever ails us, bind up whatever is broken in us, and bring forth something new, something beautiful, something perhaps unexpected.  Today we gather as the Church and place our faith in the healing of our God.  We acknowledge that the healing God brings us doesn’t always make all of our illness go away, but we also don’t rule that out.  We trust that God, who sees the big picture, knows what is best for us and desires that we come to the greatest good possible.  We also trust that God’s grace is enough to help us address illness, infirmity, pain, suffering, and the ardors of medical treatment.  We know that our God walks with us in good times and in bad.

Our readings today help us to express the faith we place in this wonderful sacrament and in the healing that Christ brings us.  In the Gospel, Jesus is amazed by the faith of the centurion who trusts that Jesus’ healing can transcend time and space and that “just the word” of Christ would bring that healing to his servant.  His is a faith we use to express our own faith in the healing power of the Eucharist whenever the priest raises the host and cup: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”  These words remind us also that healing is not just a physical thing.  The soul and the spirit have to be healed in so many ways, from the evils of sin to the sadness of infirmity – Christ’s healing power addresses our brokenness from the inside out, and that power is so beautifully manifested in the Eucharist we celebrate.

The second reading is solace for weary pray-ers.  Especially during times of illness, it can seem like we pray and pray and pray, and there is no answer, or little answer, even silence from our God.  We may also feel so overwhelmed by our situation that we don’t know how to pray.  I myself felt that way in my second year of seminary when both of my parents were diagnosed with cancer within a month of each other.  I had no idea what to say to God any more, and the only thing I could do was groan “Help!”  And that was enough.  The Holy Spirit took care of the rest of my praying, as did so many of my classmates who came to pray for me and with me.  I did not know how to pray as I ought, but the Spirit certainly interceded with groanings I could not manage to express.  That happens often during times of illness and crisis.  But faith says that we don’t have to have all the right words, because our faith is enough and our God knows what we need.

And so in our faith, we gather today to express the prayers of our hearts, perhaps prayers we haven’t been able to utter for some reason or another.  We gather today to place ourselves in God’s hands and experience his healing, in whatever way is best for us.  The Apostle Saint James tells us that we should turn to the Church in time of illness, calling on the priests to anoint the sick in the name of the Lord, knowing that God desires healing, and that the prayer of faith will save the sick and raise them up, forgiving them their sins.

The Church has this sacrament because of who Jesus was and because of what he came to do among us.  Jesus was that suffering servant from the book of Isaiah’s prophecy, the One who took on our illnesses and bore our infirmities.  He was spurned and avoided, oppressed and condemned, all the while giving his life as an offering for sin, justifying many, and bearing their guilt.  God always knew the frailty of human flesh, but when he decided to come to his people, he did not avoid that frailty; instead he took it on and assumed all of its effects.  This is why we treat the sick with dignity: our frailty was good enough for our God, and we know that the sick are very close to our Lord in their suffering, because he suffered too.

And we know that Jesus cared deeply for the sick and the suffering.  Large portions of the Gospel – including today’s Gospel reading – see Jesus caring for the sick, responding to their faith, healing them from the inside out.  The sick sought him out, they called out to him as he passed along the way, they reached out to touch just the tassel of his cloak, their friends brought them to Jesus, even lowering them down from a hole in the roof if the crowds were too big.  He was moved by their faith, always responding to them, healing not just their outward symptoms, but also and perhaps most of all, the inner causes of their illnesses, forgiving their sins, and giving them a place in the Kingdom.

Jesus still does this today.  He still walks with us in our suffering, whether we are to be cured or not, letting us know that we don’t suffer alone.  He still responds to our faith, curing our brokenness and healing our sinfulness.  If he judges that it is best for us, he heals our outward symptoms too, perhaps even curing our diseases, and he gives us all a place in the Kingdom, if we have the faith to accept it and to receive the healing he brings us.

Jesus continues his healing mission through the Church in our day.  Certainly the priests provide the sacraments to the sick and the dying.  But also, the entire people of God are called to the corporal work of mercy of caring for the sick.  Every act of mercy and every prayer for the sick is part of the healing work of Jesus.  Doctors and nurses and therapists and other caregivers also provide the healing ministry of Jesus, particularly when they are men and women of faith.  This ministry is also provided by our many Ministers of Care, people who visit the sick and bring them the Eucharist in their homes, in hospitals, and in nursing homes.  The Church’s ministry to and with the sick is the visible sign of the love of God at work in our world and his care for all those who are suffering.

We don’t know if you all will walk out of this holy place healed of all your diseases.  But we can promise that you will be freed from your sins, healed from the inside out, and that your Lord will always walk with you, even in your darkest hours.  We have faith that healing will come at some time in some way, of the Lord’s choosing, for your good, and for the glory of God.  That’s why we are here today.  That’s why we celebrate this beautiful sacrament with you today.  We know that our Lord deeply desires to heal us.  And we know that every healing moment is a miracle, made possible by God’s great love poured out on us when we make an act of faith.

Pastoral Care of the Sick: Anointing of the Sick During Mass

Today’s readings: Isaiah 61:1-3a, Psalm 147, Romans 8:18-27, Matthew 8:5-17

I’ve talked to a lot of sick people, and I’m amazed at how many of those who are really ill, who have come through something very difficult, have told me that they attributed their healing, or at least the ability to get through the tough times, to their faith.  I’m not surprised by that, of course, but I am always moved when a person realizes that even in their hardest hours, God has not abandoned them, that he walks with them and bestows healing in some way, at the time when it’s needed.

This Mass is a testimony to that healing.  In the Anointing of the Sick, the Church proclaims courageously that there is no malady that cannot be addressed by our God; that he can take on whatever ails us, bind up whatever is broken in us, and bring forth something new, something beautiful, something perhaps unexpected.  Today we gather as the Church and place our faith in the healing of our God.  We acknowledge that the healing God brings us doesn’t always make all of our illness go away, but we also don’t rule that out.  We trust that God, who sees the big picture, knows what is best for us and desires that we come to the greatest good possible.  We also trust that God’s grace is enough to help us address illness, infirmity, pain, suffering, and the ardors of medical treatment.  We know that our God walks with us in good times and in bad.

Our readings today help us to express the faith we place in this wonderful sacrament and in the healing that Christ brings us.  In the Gospel, Jesus is amazed by the faith of the centurion who trusts that Jesus’ healing can transcend time and space and that “just the word” of Christ would bring that healing to his servant.  His is a faith we use to express our own faith in the healing power of the Eucharist whenever the priest raises the host and cup: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”  These words remind us also that healing is not just a physical thing.  The soul and the spirit have to be healed in so many ways, from the evils of sin to the sadness of infirmity – Christ’s healing power addresses our brokenness from the inside out, and that power is so beautifully manifested in the Eucharist we celebrate.

The second reading is solace for weary pray-ers.  Especially during times of illness, it can seem like we pray and pray and pray, and there is no answer, or little answer, even silence from our God.  We may also feel so overwhelmed by our situation that we don’t know how to pray.  I myself felt that way in my second year of seminary when both of my parents were diagnosed with cancer within a month of each other.  I had no idea what to say to God any more, and the only thing I could do was groan “Help!”  And that was enough.  The Holy Spirit took care of the rest of my praying, as did so many of my classmates who came to pray for me and with me.  I did not know how to pray as I ought, but the Spirit certainly interceded with groanings I could not manage to express.  That happens often during times of illness and crisis.  But faith says that we don’t have to have all the right words, because our faith is enough and our God knows what we need.

And so in our faith, we gather today to express the prayers of our hearts, perhaps prayers we haven’t been able to utter for some reason or another.  We gather today to place ourselves in God’s hands and experience his healing, in whatever way is best for us.  The Apostle Saint James tells us that we should turn to the Church in time of illness, calling on the priests to anoint the sick in the name of the Lord, knowing that God desires healing, and that the prayer of faith will save the sick and raise them up, forgiving them their sins.

The Church has this sacrament because of who Jesus was and because of what he came to do among us.  Jesus was that suffering servant from the book of Isaiah’s prophecy, the One who took on our illnesses and bore our infirmities.  He was spurned and avoided, oppressed and condemned, all the while giving his life as an offering for sin, justifying many, and bearing their guilt.  God always knew the frailty of human flesh, but when he decided to come to his people, he did not avoid that frailty; instead he took it on and assumed all of its effects.  This is why we treat the sick with dignity: our frailty was good enough for our God, and we know that the sick are very close to our Lord in their suffering, because he suffered too.

And we know that Jesus cared deeply for the sick and the suffering.  Large portions of the Gospel – including today’s Gospel reading – see Jesus caring for the sick, responding to their faith, healing them from the inside out.  The sick sought him out, they called out to him as he passed along the way, they reached out to touch just the tassel of his cloak, their friends brought them to Jesus, even lowering them down from a hole in the roof if the crowds were too big.  He was moved by their faith, always responding to them, healing not just their outward symptoms, but also and perhaps most of all, the inner causes of their illnesses, forgiving their sins, and giving them a place in the Kingdom.

Jesus still does this today.  He still walks with us in our suffering, whether we are to be cured or not, letting us know that we don’t suffer alone.  He still responds to our faith, curing our brokenness and healing our sinfulness.  If he judges that it is best for us, he heals our outward symptoms too, perhaps even curing our diseases, and he gives us all a place in the Kingdom, if we have the faith to accept it and to receive the healing he brings us.

Jesus continues his healing mission through the Church in our day.  Certainly the priests provide the sacraments to the sick and the dying.  But also, the entire people of God are called to the corporal work of mercy of caring for the sick.  Every act of mercy and every prayer for the sick is part of the healing work of Jesus.  Doctors and nurses and therapists and other caregivers also provide the healing ministry of Jesus, particularly when they are men and women of faith.  This ministry is also provided by our many Ministers of Care, people who visit the sick and bring them the Eucharist in their homes, in hospitals, and in nursing homes.  The Church’s ministry to and with the sick is the visible sign of the love of God at work in our world and his care for all those who are suffering.

We don’t know if you all will walk out of this holy place healed of all your diseases.  But we can promise that you will be freed from your sins, healed from the inside out, and that your Lord will always walk with you in your suffering.  We have faith that healing will come at some time in some way, of the Lord’s choosing, for your good, and for the glory of God.  That’s why we are here today.  That’s why we celebrate this beautiful sacrament with you today.  We know that our Lord deeply desires to heal us.  And we know that every healing moment is a miracle, made possible by God’s great love poured out on us when we make an act of faith.

Pastoral Care of the Sick: Anointing of the Sick During Mass

Today’s readings: 1 Kings 19:1-8 | Psalm 34 | James 5:13-16 | Mark 2:1-12

I first met Tom probably a few weeks after I started my first assignment as a priest at St. Raphael’s back in the summer of 2006.  He was a young man, probably around my age, and was suffering the effects of cancer.  His family had called because he wanted to see a priest and I had gone to anoint him at the Intensive Care Unit of the hospital.  They didn’t think he was going to make it through the day, but just at the moment I got there, he had woken up and was talking to the family, the first time he had done that in a couple of days.  I waited a while, then went in to talk to him, and after a while I did what we’re going to do today: I anointed him with oil in the name of the Lord, praying over him, just as St. James tells us we should do in today’s second reading.

During the conversation with Tom and his family, I learned that one of Tom’s favorite verses of Scripture was Isaiah 53:5: “But he was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins, Upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole, by his stripes we were healed.”  Throughout his illness, Tom, a man of great faith, had prayed the closing words of that verse – “By his stripes we were healed” – every day at 3:00, the Mercy Hour, the traditional time when we believe Jesus gave his life for us, enduring stripes and torture and the agony of the cross to heal our brokenness and give us access to the kingdom of God.  He asked everyone he knew to pray for him in that way, and I promised I would do so.

I visited with Tom a couple of other times during his illness.  About a month after I first met him, Tom passed from this life to the next, right around 3:00 in the afternoon, just after praying those words that had sustained him during his illness.  In the homily at his funeral, I noted that there are all kinds of healing, and that I truly believed Tom had been healed in the greatest way that God can offer us, by bringing us to the Kingdom.  By His stripes, Tom had indeed been healed.  Tom was the first person I ever anointed and his was the first funeral I ever celebrated.  I’ll never forget what a faithful man he was, even during his most difficult days.

We gather together today to celebrate the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.  The Church has this sacrament because of those directions from St. James: the sick are to call on the priests of the Church, and they are to anoint the sick person with oil in the name of the Lord.  The prayer of faith, we are told, will heal the sick person, and the Lord will raise that one up.  And if the sick have committed any sins, they will be forgiven.

The Church has this sacrament also because of who Jesus was and because of what he came to do among us.  And that was to heal people.  Deeply.  Because what we ask for, what we are looking for, is something that can be kind of superficial.  We look for mere physical healing.  But God, in his mercy, knows what we really need; he knows what we would ask for, if we really knew how to ask for what would help us.  What Jesus wants to do is to heal us from the inside out.

And so we see that in our Gospel reading this morning.  Everyone thought that they knew what the paralytic needed.  The crowd knew the man needed to be un-paralyzed.  They couldn’t have missed the tell-tale signs of the man, immobile on a stretcher, being lowered to down to Jesus from the roof.  The man’s friends probably thought they knew too: they had heard stories, most likely, about this miracle worker, and were anxious to bring their friend, long paralyzed, to the one person that could do something about it.  The scribes thought they knew:  they were watching very closely to see what Jesus would do in this pretty desperate situation: the man can’t even move, how could anyone save him, they thought.  And even the paralytic himself probably thought he knew what he needed: long-standing illness can bring about a kind of short-sightedness that blinds us to what is best for us.

But the only one who knew – really knew – what this man needed was Jesus.  “Child, your sins are forgiven.”  We can just imagine all those brows furrowing up, can’t we?  What did he say?  His sins are forgiven?  So what about his paralysis?

What they don’t know is that Jesus did address the man’s paralysis.  There are all sorts of things that paralyze us:  fear, certainly, but the most insidious cause of paralysis is sin.  Sin binds us in ways of which we are not usually fully aware:  sin cancels our freedom and makes us slaves to itself.  Sin is always a step in the wrong direction, but more than that, it often produces shame, which inhibits us from getting back on the right path.  Shame convinces us that we’re not worthy of grace or love so then we sin again, and the cycle continues.  Nothing keeps us from moving forward like sin does.  Nothing paralyzes us so insidiously as does sin.

Now, please carefully understand that I am not saying that illness is a punishment for sin.  Jesus didn’t say that either.  In fact, so as to dispel the then-common idea that illness was some kind of punishment for something someone did wrong, and to prove that he had power over every kind of healing, Jesus says to the man, “Rise, pick up your mat and go home.”  And he does.  The paralytic had been healed in just the way Jesus knew he needed to be healed – from the inside out.  Clearing away what was binding him by sin, the man was open to receiving the grace of bodily healing as well.

So today’s readings demonstrate all the tools for healing the Church offers us.  There is the forgiveness of sins, which we have celebrated earlier today in the Sacrament of Penance.  There is the Anointing of the Sick, according to the instructions of Saint James, which we will celebrate in a moment.  And the first reading points us to the most wonderful healing remedy there is: the Body and Blood of Christ.

Elijah, who has every right at this point in the story to lay down and summon death, hears from God that that is not God’s will.  “Get up and eat, or the journey will be too much for you!”  Indeed, the path to healing and wholeness is very often a long and arduous journey.  We dare not make that journey without food to sustain us.  And nothing sustains us on that journey like the Body and Blood of Christ.  No matter where our journey takes us: be it to spiritual healing, physical healing, or even one day to eternal life, we need that food for the journey, which is the Eucharist, that splendid meal that reminds us that we are never alone no matter where life or its pains may take us.  Our ministers of care could certainly tell us many stories of just how important this food is to those who are sick.

And so today, we bring all these tools to bear in the work of healing.  Wherever you are right now, it is our prayer – the Church’s prayer – that God would grant you the healing that you truly need.  That healing may be spiritual: reuniting you with God and others at the Altar of praise.  That healing may be physical if that is what God knows is best for you.

We don’t know if you all will walk out of this holy place healed of all your diseases.  But we can promise that, if you are properly disposed to receive grace, you will be freed from your sins, healed from the inside out, and that your Lord will always walk with you in your suffering.  Just like for Tom, the healing will come at some time in some way, of the Lord’s choosing, for your good, and for the glory of God.  That’s why we are here today.  That’s why we celebrate these beautiful sacraments with you today.  We know that our Lord deeply desires to heal us.  And we know that Tom was absolutely right in his profession of faith in our Lord’s goodness: by his stripes we were healed.

The Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time [B]

Today’s readings

In ancient days, a diagnosis of leprosy was a death sentence.  And that’s not just because they didn’t know how to treat the disease.  They didn’t, but what was really horrible is the way the lepers were treated.  First of all, they were called lepers – not people – so being labeled as such stripped them of the personhood, and put them on the same level as a virus that needed to be eradicated.  They were cut off from the community, so they would have no community or even family support.  They were forbidden to worship with the community, so they must also have felt cut off from God.  And so it went for those who contracted leprosy: sick and alone, they were left to survive as best they could, or just to die.

The worst part of it is that most of the time people didn’t actually have leprosy: the ancients’ lack of scientific knowledge led them to label as leprosy any kind of skin ailment.  The rules for dealing with people with these diseases were based on fear: they didn’t want to contract the disease themselves, so the “clean” ones ostracized those with disease, treating them as if they didn’t exist.

Jesus, obviously, didn’t agree with that kind of way of “treating” the illness of leprosy.  He didn’t really have any more scientific resources at that time to treat the disease, but it wasn’t the disease he was concerned about.  No, he was concerned about the person, not the illness.  And so he does not take offense when the leper breaks the Levitical law that we heard in our first reading and actually approaches Jesus.  Jesus, too breaks the law by reaching out to touch him and saying, with an authority that comes from God himself, “I do will it.  Be made clean.”

The thing is, we don’t treat lepers very well today, either.  I don’t mean people who have the actual disease of leprosy – that is actually very treatable, even curable, in this day and age.  What I mean is that there are a lot of leprosies out there.  Some people tend to ostracize a loved one when they contract a difficult disease, like cancer.  They can’t bear the thought of death, or they don’t like hospitals, or they feel powerless to help in these situations, so they stay away.  Hospitals and nursing homes are full of people who never receive a visit from family or friends.  Our pastoral care ministers could probably tell you many heart-breaking stories with that theme.

And leprosy doesn’t apply just to sick people.  People who are different in any way are subject to ostracization: people who have different color skin than us, people who are not Catholic or not Christian, people who are homosexual, people who are poor or homeless.  All of these we treat from a distance, keeping them outside the community, outside of means of support, outside of the love of God in just the same way the ancients dealt with lepers.  We have a tendency to label people and then write them off.

I don’t know about you, but I’m glad God doesn’t treat broken people that way.  Because then I might be cut off because of my many sins.  We all have something in us that is unclean, and it would be woe for us if God just wrote us off.  He doesn’t.  He reaches out to touch us to, exactly where we are at, without fear of contracting the illness of our sin himself, and heals us from the inside out.  “I do will it.  Be made clean.”

Our religion, thankfully, has rituals for the things that infest us.  When we are sick, there is the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick.  When we are sinful, there is the sacrament of Penance.  We call these the sacraments of healing, because they do just that: give us God’s grace when we are sick or dying, and his forgiveness and mercy when we have sinned.

Many people misunderstand the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick.  No longer do we think of that as something to be done at the last possible moment.  It should be done as soon as it is known that a person is gravely ill.  We rely on doctors to tell us that.  It should be done before someone has serious surgery.  It should be done when a person is suffering from mental illness of any kind.  It might be done more than once: when a person is first diagnosed, for example, and then again when they are near death, or when the illness is worse in any way.  It should be done at a hospital or nursing home, or in a person’s home, or even here at church.  Wherever the person is or is most comfortable.  We are also having a Mass with Anointing of the Sick during Lent here in church.  The sacrament provides grace to live through an illness, or mercy on the journey to eternity, sometimes even healing if that is what God knows to be good for the person.  Please don’t wait until a person has just moments left to send for a priest, don’t be afraid to ask us to anoint you before surgery, and don’t assume that if you’re in the hospital, we will know – they can’t really tell us that any more.

As for the Sacrament of Penance, there are many opportunities to celebrate that sacrament: Saturdays at 4pm, during Lent we will have a Penance Service, and we’ll also have Confessions before the Mass of the Anointing of the Sick I just mentioned.  You can also always call a priest for an appointment if you need to.  The problem can sometimes be that a person feels embarrassed to go to Confession if they’ve been away from the sacrament for a long time.  Don’t be.  It’s our job to help you make a good Confession, and we are absolutely committed to doing that.  Your sins don’t make us think less of you; in fact I always have deep respect for the person who lowers his or her defenses and lets God have mercy on them.

These are wonderful sacraments of healing.  God gives them to us because he will not be like those living in Levitical times.  Just as he reached out to the leper in today’s Gospel, so Christ longs to reach out and touch all of us in our brokenness, in our uncleanness, and make us whole again.  As the Psalmist sings today, so we can pray: “I turn to you, Lord, in time of trouble, and you fill me with the joy of salvation.”   Praise God for Jesus’ words today: “I do will it.  Be made clean!”

Twenty-third Sunday of Ordinary Time [B]

Today’s readings
What Every Catholic Should Know about the Anointing of the Sick

Jesus’ ministry on earth was all about healing.  In today’s gospel, he heals a man who has been deaf and mute with the word of command: “Ephphatha!” – “Be opened!”  And this word – no surprise – is not just about the deaf and mute man.  The reason Mark brings it up is because Ephphatha is what Jesus is about.  He is about healing, and opening up a way for those who have been at odds with God to be back in relationship with him.  So whether the obstacle has been a physical illness or a spiritual one, he commands ephphatha, that the way be opened and the obstacle obliterated, and the illness of the broken one bound up and the way made straight for the person to be in communion with God.

St. James today invites us to take a look at the issue from another angle.  Have we pre-judged people who are not like us when they come to the Church, or to us in any way?  Do we look down on those who don’t dress like us, or don’t speak like us, or don’t act like us?  Do these people have illness that needs to be healed?  Or is it we that have the illness, being unable to see them as Christ does, as brothers and sisters and children of God?  So whatever the illness is today, whether it is ours or someone else’s, Jesus commands it to be ephphatha that nothing may be an obstacle to the love of God and the healing of Jesus Christ.

Since the readings lead us to a place of healing, I want to take this opportunity to speak of one of the sacraments of healing, namely the Anointing of the Sick.  I want to look at it from two angles, first from a personal witness, then from a more catechetical perspective.  And I do this because the Anointing of the Sick is incredibly misunderstood, even by faithful Catholics.  There are those who do not benefit from the sacrament, because they think it is only for the dying, and there are even those who go without the sacrament because they wait too long and the person dies without benefit of the sacraments.  This is not what the Church intends, of course, and it is an extremely serious error.

So this first part is personal witness, and you’ll forgive me, I hope, if I get a little emotional.  When I was in my second year of seminary my mother and father were both diagnosed with cancer within about a month of each other.  As you can well imagine, this was a very difficult time for our family, but thank God we had the Church to walk with us through their illness.  Both of them received the Anointing of the Sick from their pastor before they had surgery.  I remember that we gathered in the church, just after Sunday Mass, and he beautifully led them through the rite.  It was wonderful for them, of course, but also helpful for us who were grieving their illness with them.  The sacraments are never just for one person; they always involve and even benefit the whole community.

After I was ordained a priest for not quite a year, dad’s illness became more serious.  One Friday, just after the school mass, one of our parish staff members came to me and told me I had to call mom because dad needed to go to the hospital.  He had become rather weak, and unable really to get around without help.  We took him to the emergency room, and in the course of the day’s tests, I anointed him.  I actually also anointed my Uncle Bob, who had come for tests related to his own heart condition, and had stopped in to check on dad before he went to his appointment.  So we all celebrated the sacrament, again, together.

Dad never left the hospital that weekend.  By Saturday night, his condition was deteriorating.  On Sunday, just after I was done with Mass, I headed to the hospital.  On the way, my sister Peggy called to let me know they were moving dad and that I should call when I was closer to the hospital so that I’d know where they were.  When I did that, she told me she would just meet me at the door.  At that point, I was sure that dad was dying or perhaps had even died, so I brought my sick call kit with me.  Both of my sisters met me there and told me he was dying.

So we went to his room, where pretty much all of my family had gathered.  Mom, my sisters and brother-in-law, the kids, dad’s brothers and sister, the in-laws, everyone.  At that time, I gave dad the Last Rites, which we still do have in the Church.  I had given those Last Rites to many people by then, but as you can imagine, this was the hardest time ever.  Dad died early the next morning, totally prepared for the journey, ready to meet the Lord.  We had all prayed with him and were ready to wish him farewell.  It was a difficult, but beautifully prayerful day.

I bring this up because it illustrates three times when a person should be anointed.  First, just before serious surgery related to an illness, as both my parents were before their cancer surgery.  Second, when health seriously deteriorates, even during the same illness, as when we brought dad to the emergency room.  And third, just before death.

The letter of St. James tells us: “Is anyone among you sick?  He should summon the presbyters of the church, and they should pray over him and anoint (him) with oil in the name of the Lord, 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.”  (James 5:14-15)

The Anointing of the Sick is the official name for what many people think of, erroneously, as the “Last Rites” or may have traditionally called Extreme unction.  The term “Extreme unction” is the Latin for “Last anointing.”  And in the days between the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century and Vatican II, that was the nature of the sacrament: a last anointing to prepare a person for death.

But Vatican II changed that.  Vatican II actually reverted to the more ancient practice of anointing the sick – not just the terminally ill or dying person – which may restore a person to health, aid in their healing and recuperation, or calm their mind and spirit if they are indeed preparing for death.  So the sacrament today is broader than just a last anointing.

But the Last Rites do still exist, and it is important for one to receive them if possible.  Dad did just before he died.  The Last Rites prepare a person for death, when death is immanent.  These rites include sacramental penance, the anointing of the sick, and Viaticum.

Viaticum is one’s last Communion.  In Latin, Viaticum literally means “bread for the journey.”  All Catholics are strongly encouraged to receive Communion when death is immanent, and this is the Church’s way of allowing the dying to be intimately united with the Lord in their last moments.  Just before death, sometimes people are not able to take solid food.  In that case, they receive spiritual communion and retain the graces of the sacrament.  Taken together, the three sacraments prepare us for our eternal life, and help us to be ready to meet our God.

It is important, as you saw in my own personal witness, that the rites for the sick, when possible, be received with the community present.  Most often this includes the loved ones of the sick person, but might also include parishioners, neighbors, or even health care workers.  The sacraments are always meant to be celebrated in community where possible, and this is a help to both the sick person and to the loved ones.

Indeed, the entire Christian community is involved in the Pastoral Care of the Sick.  We are call called to participate in the healing ministry of Christ. Priests are called upon to celebrate the sacraments with the sick with special care so that they may give the sick hope. Lay people are called upon to visit the sick as a corporal work of mercy, and to encourage the sick to receive the sacraments when the time comes.  Finally, the sick are called upon to receive the anointing of the sick during their illness, and to faithfully join their sufferings to the passion and death of the Lord, for the well-being of the Church.

This next part is very important, so everyone look at me and hear this, please.  It is important that someone from the family notify the Church in the event of illness of a loved one.  Current laws in the U.S. do not allow hospitals to easily share such information, as they did in the past, so your phone call may be the only way the priests know your loved one is ill.  And if we don’t know they are ill, we can’t care for them or pray for them.  The family really has to do this, because due to privacy concerns, we cannot take action (like praying for them at Mass or putting their name on the sick list in the bulletin) based on information from any other person.

Finally, I want to say that we here at St. Petronille are fortunate to have many people ready to bring Communion to the homebound.  However, we don’t know of too many people in that kind of need, so many of them have no one to visit at this time.  But, during the short time I’ve been here, we have had a number of elderly, home-bound people die, so I know that many more are out there.  If you know of a homebound person, please let us know so that we may care for them.

The people who saw what Jesus was doing by healing the sick said, “He has done all things well.  He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”  That ministry is now entrusted to us.  Let us, too, do it well, so that those who are ill in any way may hear the Lord’s command of Ephphatha! and may come at last into the healing presence of our God.