Ars Praedicandi: Homily for a Ritual Mass for the Anointing of the Sick

The pastoral team at a local Nashville parish has asked me to give a series of adult education sessions this fall on healing and the Pastoral Care of the Sick, including suggested reading for the more engaged participants. The invitation has drawn me back to research and writing I did in the past decade such that I stumbled upon the text of a homily I delivered as part of a ritual mass for the anointing of the sick that took place within a three-day conference on practices in Roman Catholicism held at the College of the Holy Cross in 2002.

The Liturgy of the Word included a reading from the Book of Revelation envisioning “a new heaven and a new earth” (21:1-7); the responsorial psalm, “To You, O Lord, I lift my soul” (Ps 25); and the gospel account of four men getting a paralytic to Jesus by lowering the man through a roof (Mark 2:1-12). I worked not only with those texts but also material from the eucology of the rite of anointing to produce the following homily:

 

How greatly we desire to see Jesus. This deep and often urgent desire of Christians down the ages has been carried perhaps as fervently in music as in any other way our bodies can raise up our souls to God and to one another, grasping each others’ hands, begging for that word of Grace.

How eagerly and earnestly we desire to see him. And yet we know those moments when we would say in a very different vain, like the people at the end of this story, that we have never seen anything like this. Maybe you’re like me and you say, “Well, that’s a really pretty story there, a nice story in the Gospel, that quaint little opening in the roof and all.” And scripture scholars might help us know, “Well, it really wasn’t tiles they removed on that roof; it was probably a mud construction.” And we can have a very nice time looking at the story, only to end up thinking: “But we have never seen anything like this!”

Have you?

Still we know that something of the truth in this story is within our own hearts and in the lives of people with which God has privileged our lives as friends and families and loves ones. And we know it also at times in people that we don’t even recognize among us. As Professor Rafael taught us today about the dynamics of the crowd, the ecstasy of the crowd, in the Philippines, he brought us this image of a woman, sitting on the curb, in a moment . . . the cell phone. Even in people like that, images, pictures, parables come to life and we know something of the deepest longings and yearnings of people, and we know that in ourselves and one another this is our great desire to see the face of God. And for you and for me who are Christians in this assembly, that is to say how greatly we desire to see Jesus.

And we have.

As many as are the people in this room who could and would tell their stories of the encounter or of the yearning for it, the desire to see him, there are also as many people perhaps who could tell the story of seeing that desire in their sister or brother. The one who cannot move now, flat out on his back: that’s where they saw the face of God. That’s where they saw Jesus. Maybe even in the places that people said God couldn’t possibly be: “God doesn’t want to go there! We’ve got some pretty good conceptions of what God is like. In fact we’ve got some firm notions, and we’ve got this image and that, high and above, resplendent, luminously bright.” And yet the moments in your life and mine when most likely we see the face of God is not unlike the faith of these four people who carried in a friend, a sister or a brother, a loved one, because they said, “We love you, and we see God in you, even in your courage, even in your faithfulness, even when you don’t gloss over and pretend that you’re not afraid or discouraged or could use some renewal, some love—and in your remarkable honesty you let God know that too.”

If this morning Professor Macy helped us even briefly to reflect on what the term sacrament means, that is, the history of the concept, he taught us as well that it must mean something now in the present tense if it’s going to mean anything at all. I would propose that the sacraments with which we live are the living sisters and brothers, people that we know and people we’ve never met and all those in between, who are, in the words of the great Flemish theologian Edward Schillebeeckx, the human face of God. It’s not so much a matter of objects and, in the end of the day dare I say (at least in the preaching), it is not so much the rituals per se. The sacraments are the living, breathing people whom, when we receive the gift from God, we are privileged to recognize as the very face of the divine.

Jesus did.

And eventually, gifted with the same Spirit with which he was baptized, so did his followers too—haltingly, off and on. That’s their story, that’s my story, and that’s your story too.

Perhaps another yearning is: Enough already, enough! I’ve had it. The Revelation of John, a new heaven’s and a new earth? Okay, yes, it’s time. Please, by all means, it’s time.

But until in God’s own time the fullness of that new creation is revealed, what we have is a profoundly special and powerful gift that Jesus lauds today in this story: the gift of our faith that sees in moments, that sees in instances, that expects that God will show us God’s faithful presence out there in the crowd, and across the bed, and downstairs, and wherever the very face of God be known. And we need finally, then, these ritual sacraments to help us recognize this faith, living on a sheer promise. We have the Lord’s promise that when we together as the body of Christ, assembled in that Spirit, honestly and truthfully celebrate the faith of those whose lives at this moment are a struggle with some illness and of those who are there to bring them and help them and save them and raise them up, then there it is! There’s the glimmer. There’s the moment. There’s the sacrament of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God.

The invitation that the Lord extends to us in this evening’s liturgy is an invitation to those buoyed by the faith of all of us assembled here, all of us who have come through the doors, under the roof, an invitation to step forward and receive that gift of faith and of strengthening which is only and already an acknowledgment and raising up of the faith that perhaps we can’t even speak. And so the invitation to this Roman Catholic Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is extended to anyone who discerns and knows in his or her life now that his or her condition of health of body and of mind poses a challenge, needs God’s help, might require some new renegotiation, because: “I want to move forward. I don’t want to be stuck. I don’t want to be flat out on my back. And even if it’s a not a matter of moving my body differently than it did before, I’ll know I’m moving nonetheless.”

And so we move—and not just in any old way. Not slumping and shuffling toward the Kingdom, but with the artistic help of a very talented liturgical choreographer, dancers, musicians, but, most importantly, one another. We invite and call forward those whom the Lord now desires to strengthen and to raise up.

 

The above is extracted from: Bruce T. Morrill, S.J., “Practicing the Pastoral Care of the Sick: The Sacramental Body in Liturgical Motion,” in Practicing Catholic: Ritual, Body, and Contestation in Catholic Faith, edited by Bruce T. Morrill, Joanna E. Ziegler, and Susan Rodgers (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 99-114, here 109-111.

2 comments

  1. I am a priest who spent much of 2012-14 in the hospital where I experienced the most cavalier treatment of anointing and communion of the sick that I was left really sadder than I thought possible. After all the eucharistic ministers and the priests for anointing were going out of their way to minister to me. For some reason not a one thought to use the actual rites. I got pious prayers, no scripture, the one time the anointing ritual was used it was rattled through from memory in a style that recalled the days of a near meaningless Latin ritual. One good thing has come from all this. I will REALLY work much harder with deacons, priests, eucharistic ministers and I will share with them the atrocity stories of being trapped in a hospital bed and forced to submit to a dreary experience that left me in conflict. I did not want to tell the folks that they had ruined one of the best forms of the renewed liturgy.

  2. I had the same experiences when i was hospitalized. It seems to me that it is no accident that the Anointing of the Sick is the last sacrament listed in any list. It is the “forgotten” sacrament…perhaps due to the fact that most of the time it is celebrated not in a church but in a private setting. I am not sure about the clergy but I can tell you that I do not think laity are trained well in the history, theology or richness of this sacrament.
    When I was doing parish work, we celebrated the sacrament twice a year at all weekend liturgies during Ordinary Time, usually in Feb and once during the summer. I was careful to schedule it when the assigned Scriptures dealt with healing. We wore white vestments and used the “Mass of the Sick”. Gave the folks plenty of lead up time for it and invited them to bring family members who needed the grace from this sacrament. I was able to have 2-3 priests helping out for the anointing right after the homily.
    I say this as a teaching moment. Since only priests & bishops can annoint, this creates another problems of trying to find one when someone needs this graceful sacrament.

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