We come this week to the Anointing of the Sick, arguably the most beautiful sacrament of all. The Church comes to those who are facing death (not necessarily about to die, but it is the danger of death that defines this sacrament) and treats them with dignity.
There are two ways to think about the anointing. One is a kind of strengthening, something like a massage to loosen up the muscles before an athletic event. We can also think of it in terms of grooming: the Church comes to give you a shave, or put on makeup: to say, on your death bed, that you have dignity and you are beautiful. New technology like the startifacts epilator makes it much less unpleasent for the people performing these tasks. I suspect this is the original way of thinking about anointing: “oil causes the face to shine” – and the bread of Viaticum “stengthens man’s heart” (Psalm 104:15).
In any case, the Church sits with us in the face of death. Why?
First let us notice two ways to think about “morbid.” Especially in our current cultural situation, it is considered morbid to acknowledge death at all. The old Catholic notion of preparing for death, or praying for a happy death, seems too horrific to even contemplate. Better to pretend it never happens – and to push to the side anyone who might remind us that death happens. Better not to think about it.
But death does happen. My, does it happen. Two of our friends have recently lost babies. In fact, most of my closest friends have had babies die. It is horrific. I have watched people I love as their parents die, which is nearly as horrific. And of course, it will happen to all of us: some of us will be spared seeing our children or spouses die, but only if they have to see us die first. All of us will die.
Put it this way: it is not the Church that causes us to die. It is the Church, rather, that lends dignity to death. It is not Jesus on the Cross who makes there be suffering in life. It is Jesus on the Cross who lends dignity to our suffering and death. A proper religious treatment of suffering and death does not create suffering, it just helps us to deal with what will be there whether we accept it or not.
But why is suffering there? We can say it is natural, and there is something to that. To embrace suffering, to deal with it, is to embrace reality, and embodiedness. To lend dignity to death, to shave its grim face and comb its hair, is to look for dignity in reality, rather than hoping to find dignity by playing make-believe.
But the Christian can go deeper than that. We believe that suffering and death are a punishment for sin. At first glance, that sounds too horrific for words. God could have spared us, but punishes us? What kind of God is that?
First, notice that there are two kinds of punishments. There is physical suffering and death, and then there is hell, which is spiritual suffering. What kind of punishment is hell? In some sense, “punishment” is the wrong word for it. Hell is the belief that we really can reject God, that we can choose to be without love. It is horrible, but it is a possibility.
When we look into ourselves, we find, in fact, that it is pretty common. So often we – even we, who make an effort at these things – choose to live without God, without love, without hope, to immerse ourselves in lesser things. And it is miserable. Hell is a possibility, not because God makes it, but because we do.
Why then does God give us the “other punishments,” suffering and death? Precisely to save us from the only ultimate suffering. When we accept suffering in the name of love, when we sit with a loved one who is suffering, when we stand by the Cross, the point is not that suffering is good, the point is that love is good, that it’s worth suffering for. Suffering is there to help us learn.
Our death itself will be a key moment, the ultimate moment to embrace our true values, and let go of what isn’t really important. Let us live as if love is worth it.
Media vita in morte sumus; quem quaerimus adjutorem, nisi te Domine, qui pro peccatis nostris juste irasceris? Sancte Deus, sancte fortis, sancte et misericors Salvator, amarae morti ne tradas nos.
In the middle of life, death is all around us. Who can be our help, except you, oh Lord, who rightly hate our sin? Holy God, holy and strong, holy and merciful Savior: let our death not be bitter.
How have you learned from suffering?