Lead Us Not: The Anointing of the Sick

seven sacramentsWe come at last to the end of our series on the Seven Sacraments and the Our Father. We conclude with the strangest, and perhaps the most interesting, part of each.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

eric.m.johnston

2 Comments

  1. My son was 4 weeks old and on life support for a terrible infection (RSV, HIB, and sepsis due to those things). We were at Sacred Heart hospital in Spokane, WA. He was intubated because he was unable to breathe on his own. He was sedated so he would tolerate the various pokes, wires, and the big tube in his lungs that was breathing for him. He had a tree of IVs with various medications to keep his blood pressure up and what else I can’t remember. He was fed my milk through a tube that went down his nose into his stomach. Really it was only a few drops per hour that they fed him, but I loved being able to give him my milk because it was one of the only two things I could do. I wasn’t allowed to touch him without gloves or hold him at all. But I could give the nurse my milk. And I could pray for him, which I did often and fervently. And I asked the chaplain for a visit from the priest. Because this is a Catholic hospital, there is a priest with an office right there. We are also a Catholic family, so I requested the anointing of the sick for him. The chaplain refused and said the priest would give him a blessing but he would not receive the anointing of the sick. (I guess it is only for people at the age of reason and beyond?) That hurt in a way that nothing has ever hurt from the church before. If I had been near our home parish, I think we would have received different treatment. But we were airlifted to Sacred Heart because none of our 3 local hospitals could handle his specialized care. So we were away from home, with a new baby who was seriously ill, and being given less than compassionate spiritual care from a hospital chaplain. It was an awful experience. I still remember that feeling.

  2. Eric:
    Perhaps the final pleading has something to do with the temptation of Jesus at the beginning of his public ministry. Whereas the two lines have to do with our final say about the fruits of the paschal mystery. Jesus conquers death and sin, we are faced with “death” which is a sleep. At that moment we are asking to move from an ontic state to a becoming state to take possession of what we have since our baptism always possessed but not in act. Then following the second Adam’s scenario we ask to be delivered from the evil one, the bad actor in both the first Adam’s action and in Jesus’ temptation but now at the summary moment in our life.
    We are being called even though we are calling to complete the paschal mystery of Jesus who conquered sin and death in our reborn life to do the same at our final and definitive time. Thus acknowledging the ‘actual and realized’ eschatological tenor of the prayer.
    There are an almost infinite number of ways of interpretating this prayer. My attempt is nothing more than that, just one among many of the rays shining from the most brilliant and powerful jewel among Christian prayers.
    I hope all is well with Joseph and you and your family. Pray for me as I pray for you.
    Through and with Him,
    John

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