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.


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?

Anointing the Sick: Preparing for a Good Death

Seven Sacraments Altarpiece, Rogier van der Weyden

Seven Sacraments Altarpiece, Rogier van der Weyden

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?

Now and at the Hour of Our Death

Hail Mary ImageThe twelfth and final post in our series on the “Hail Mary.”

The Hail Mary ends by juxtaposing our present with our end, our “now” with “the hour of our death.” It is helpful to begin our meditation on these words by thinking of the old ladies who are such famous devotees of the rosary – and thinking, particularly, of their annoying habit of whispering their prayers, as if they are actually saying the words of the rosary. Perhaps – is it possible? – those old ladies are wiser than we. Perhaps they have learned to pray the Hail Mary. And perhaps, for them, “the hour of our death” is not such an abstraction as it sometimes is for us who are younger.

At some point in life, the hour of our death becomes an approaching reality, something we can no longer ignore. Today, younger people are often embarrassed by the Tradition’s insistence on thinking about this. Old prayer books, and old religious art, are full of reminders that we will die, prayers for a happy death, meditations on what it means to be truly prepared for our end.

Nowadays we think that is morbid. But it is a real strength of Catholicism that our faith does not abandon us at the hour of our death. We even have a sacrament for it. (Although Vatican II reminded us that you can receive the Anointing of the Sick before you are actually at your dying breath, it remains a sacrament specifically focused on facing death.) And our most cherished prayer reminds us, dozens of times a day, that death is around the corner.

But then, death is part of life. We all face the death of our grandparents, parents, and spouses, and all too many of us – including three of my closest friends, for example – even experience the death of our small children. It is no mercy, no embrace of life, to ignore the hour of our death.


Now, death is not right. We rebel against it because we know we are made for eternity. That instinct is right.

But the Bible tells us death is a punishment, a consequence of sin. Sin, separation from God, is the real tragedy. But punishment is never ultimate; punishment, by definition, is meant to correct us. It is a gift to get us on the right track.

How does death get us on the right track? By reminding us that we are finite. Our projects will end. Our strength will end. Our influence will end. We are not the ultimate!

That is part of the beauty of including the hour of our death in the Hail Mary. The Hail Mary is all about grace, about the work God does for us. We are blessed because He is with us. On the one hand, yes, truly blessed. On the other hand, blessed by him, only by him. We are in need.

So we ask for prayers. We recognize that we are sinners: “pray for us sinners.” And we recognize that in the end, we face an ultimate that we really cannot surmount. We can play make believe with Pelagianism; we can pretend that life comes down to our own moral heroism. But when it comes to death, there is no way around. We must acknowledge that we need a higher power!

This is the gift of death (as it is also the gift of our need for sleep, and the command to keep the Sabbath). Like any punishment, it won’t necessarily work; we can ignore this corrective, and still go wrong. But to ponder death is to learn that we need a strength we do not have.


More than that, though, the Catholic lives life in light of the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus and the Assumption and Coronation of Mary. Death is not the last word. Glory is the last word. God affirms life beyond our wildest dreams. Tomorrow we die, but after that, we will eat, drink, and be merry – in some sense – far beyond our wildest hopes. Even these mortal bodies will be filled with the light of the presence of God.

To see heaven, though, we have to see that earth is not the end. To see the glory of God, we have to see that human strength is not the way.

This is as true spiritually as it is bodily. Spiritually, too – indeed, even more than bodily – we need resurrection, we need the power of God beyond death. To ask for help at the hour of our death is to profess that God’s goodness will be there, far surpassing our weakness.


What have you learned from facing death? How do you experience hope in the resurrection and in heaven?

Click here for the entire series on the “Hail Mary.”