The Anointing of the Sick is a strange sacrament. Like Confession, it deals with things we don’t like to think about. The old name was Extreme Unction. Unction and Anointing are two translations of the same idea. The classic verse for the sacrament is James 5:14: “Is any sick among you? 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.” The Greek for “anointing” is a slightly eccentric word, from which the Latin tradition gets “unction.” But the “oil” is the standard olive oil always referred to by “anointing.” In short, anointing and unction are two words for the same thing.
The bigger difference is “extreme” and “sick.” The old name emphasizes that the sacrament has to do with facing death (in extremis). But there was a bit of an abuse that grew up in the early modern period, parallel to the withholding of other sacraments, whereby this sacrament wasn’t given until you were basically dead. The new name, “of the sick,” is supposed to highlight that yes, it’s about facing death – but we face death before we’re dead.
All in all, this sacrament is about that strangest fact of human life: death – and the way that Jesus is present to anoint us at the hour of our death.
Meanwhile, our final two petitions of the Lord’s Praye r– or are they one? – are even stranger. “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Lead us not? It’s not, “lead us out,” which would make sense, but “do not lead us.” Are we really worried that God will lead us “into temptation”? And why is it “but” deliver us? That’s a curious word, suggesting a connection between the two phrases that is not obvious.
If we think about the Anointing of the Sick, with some help from the Greek of the Our Father, we can get some insight. The word for “temptation,” peirasmon, is about testing. It has the suggestion both that we can pass the test – and that we are being put to the test, facing something really difficult. There are many tests in life – but the ultimate test is death. How will we react? Will we submit to temptation – the temptation to despair, to deny God’s mercy? All of the little tests of our life prepare us for this one. All the little times we are challenged lead us to this ultimate challenge, where we will either accept God’s mercy, extended through the sacrament of Anointing, or reject it, as we so often reject God when put to the test.
The next key word, however, is “into.” The prayer does not talk about being led while “in” temptation, but about being leading “into” temptation. This is even stronger in the original languages, but “into” talks about your ultimate destination. To be led “into” a house is to end in the house. To be led “through” a house is to end on the other side.
Perhaps what we are saying is, yes, God will give us tests. It is God himself who, somehow, in some hard to understand way, gives us death as the ultimate healing from sin. But death is not meant to be our end. Too many people – and too many of us, too many times – go “into” temptation, but never come through on the other side. If God is going to give us the test, we pray that he lead us “through.”
If you lead me to temptation, let me not end in it.
The prayer expresses this idea with the word “but.” Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. “But” signals that these are not two separate petitions. Deliver us from evil is the alternative to being led into temptation. The test itself can be our ultimate destination – we can end in death, and despair, and emptiness – or it can end with our liberation from evil.
You likely know that the “evil” of our English translations is a bit abstact compared to the Greek. In Greek, it’s in the masculine, not the neuter. Neuter would signal a thing, but masculine signals a person. And it is a definite article, “the evil one,” not just abstract “evil.” The evil one – the word has overtones of both “hurtful” and “guilty” – wants to claim us. He wants us to end in despair. We will face the evil of death – but let us be delivered by it from the grips of the destroyer.
We pray for God to lead us through the test, to pour his anointing oil on our tests, and make death itself our final liberation from evil and sin.
If you had to predict based on how you dealt with the tests of this day, how would you expect to relate to God at the hour of your death? How could you prepare for that final test better?