Below is the sermon on healing I preached yesterday, continuing our series on the sacraments. It was a sermon which I really should have written earlier in the week (as always) and which I initially thought would be easier to write. But as it turned out, I spent Saturday afternoon in hospital with a man from OSP who was dying, and then with Sunday being Mothering Sunday, a day when I’m acutely aware of my own need for healing … Well … It was all just a bit too raw and real and the words just didn’t come and it turned into a mishmash of ideas. But here it is anyway…
+ In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.
Today as we continue our sermon series on the sacraments, we are looking at healing and hope.
When I was ordained priest back in August, the gift from you, the congregation of OSP, was an oil stock – a small silver vessel which holds the oil of healing. I carry it with me when I go to the hospital or visit those who are suffering from long-term illnesses. And yesterday, I took it with me when I went to anoint B for the last time.
This completely unassuming object contains nothing more remarkable than pure olive oil which has been blessed by the bishop, and yet it’s a powerful reminder of the ministry of healing I have been called to perform, and which we are all called to participate in through our caring for the sick and our intercessory prayer.
The sacrament of healing is offered here before Mass on the first Sunday of every month. Anyone is welcome to come forward to the Memorial Chapel for prayers and anointing.
Healing is something which we all — at one time or another — long for. We know all too well how it feels to be sick. When we are ill, when we suffer physically, mentally or spiritually, we become more aware of the fragility of being human. We know more intimately our powerlessness and limitations. And illness of any sort can make us glimpse death.
And when we are unwell, we want to feel better. We want the cancer to go away. We want the heart to recover. We want to be able to walk without pain. We want to wake one morning without the shadow of depression hovering over us. We want the same for those we love.
In other words, we long for a cure.
And wanting to be cured is right and good and a natural longing. But to be cured is not the same as to be healed. To be cured is to be free from disease. A cure can come without healing. A person can be freed from their illness but not freed from the anger, the confusion, the grief it has caused. They may be physically well but a shade of the person they once were, of the person they could be.
But to be healed is something different, something more. And never is this more evident than at the bedside of someone who is dying. To be healed is to be restored to wholeness. To be healed is to be redeemed. To be healed is for memories to be forgiven, the past put to rest, the whole person, body and soul to be reconciled to God.
The prayer from the American Book of Common Prayer illustrates just how all-encompassing the sacrament of healing is:
As you are outwardly anointed with this holy oil, so may our heavenly Father grant you the inward anointing of the Holy Spirit. Of his great mercy, may he forgive you your sins, release you from suffering, and restore you to wholeness and strength. May he deliver you from all evil, preserve you in all goodness, and bring you to everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The sacrament of healing used to be called Extreme Unction, Last Rites, the sacrament that was administered at the time of death. But now we use oil and prayers of healing for all kinds of needs.
It’s a sacrament deeply rooted in Christ’s own ministry and work in our world. Today’s gospel is itself a story of healing. Of cure as well, yes. But the cure is secondary, symbolic. Jesus sees a blind man (a man, interestingly enough, who does not even ask to be healed) and he gives him sight.
In doing so, he rubs clay on the man’s eyes; another way of translating it is that Jesus ‘anointed’ his eyes. St Ambrose, one of the 4th century Church Fathers links this act with the act of creation. He writes: ‘He who restored the man to health by anointing his eyes with clay is the very one who fashioned the first man out of clay’. The God who first fashioned human beings out of clay, breathed holy breath into them, blessed them and declared them good is known in the healing act.
There is a strong baptismal theme in this story as well. The man is anointed, cleansed and then is able to see clearly the light of Christ (though, as is the case with us too, his understanding of what has happened grows slowly).
These references to our baptism, I think, are integral to our understanding of the sacrament of healing. In his letter, James commands: ‘Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the Church and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven’ (James 5.14-15). We fall and we rise, we fall and we rise, we fall and we rise again, as Fr Ian quoted in his sermon a few weeks ago. Such is our baptismal life. Such is our need for healing.
Sacraments, the catechism says, ‘sustain our present hope and anticipate its future fulfillment’. That hope ‘is to live with confidence in newness and fullness of life’.
A friend of mine, a friend whose body is riddled with disease, longs for a cure and and an end to her suffering. But she expressed a hope for much, much more on her blog recently: Before cancer kills me, she wrote, ’I want to fight for what I believe in. To strive for truth, for stronger relationships, for forgiveness, for compassion. To endeavor to be my whole messy, vibrant, volatile, zealous, ardent best self.’
What God wants for us isn’t just survival, coping, getting by. What God wants for us isn’t a life half-lived in the shadow of death. What God wants for us is life, full and rich and abundant, life shining through with the light of Christ’s love. In God’s own longing for us, we find our hope. We find our healing.