Sunday, August 19, 2007

Anointing with oil

Another helpful feature of the new LSB Pastoral Care Companion (PCC) is the inclusion of a rite for anointing the sick with oil within the context of a pastoral visit. Under the heading "Visiting the Sick and Distressed" on page 34, the pastor will find a simple rite of unction that includes a reading from James 5:14-16, an address to the sick person, and a blessing that includes the anointing. There is even a helpful rubric telling how to do it - since many Lutheran pastors (at least in the LCMS) have never been trained in the nuts and bolts of unction.

By way of example, I visited a parishioner in ICU today. I brought along my communion kit, hoping that he would be able to receive the most holy body and blood of our dear Lord. However, he was asleep upon my visit. I prayed for him, read Scripture, and followed the little rite of visiting the sick and distressed.

Since I wasn't able to give him communion, it was a blessing to be able to give him something physical as a visible sign of the spiritual. I traced the sign of the holy cross on his forehead with my thumb, tracing a cross of olive oil upon his head in remembrance of his Holy Baptism.

While we don't dogmatically call unction a sacrament, it is not a useless ritual. It does involve an element administered by a called and ordained servant of the Word and it does include a promise attached to the prayer that accompanies the administration of oil. This is a rite that is specifically mentioned in Scripture (James 5:14-16) and it does fall within the duties of the ordained pastor (presbyter) per the Word of God. Sadly, it has largely fallen into disuse in our circles.

The connection to baptism is even more obvious when we make use of another rubric in the Pastoral Care Companion - the anointing that may accompany Holy Baptism. In the LSB baptismal rite as reproduced in the Pastoral Care Companion (PCC), pp. 3-13, we find the following rubric listed under "The Rite in Detail" (Number 9): "While making the sign of the cross during the blessing after the Baptism, olive oil may be used to symbolize the sealing with the Holy Spirit for salvation (Eph. 1:13-14). This oil is applied with the thumb."

I urge all my colleagues in the Holy Ministry serving in Missouri Synod congregations to embrace this beautiful and evangelical practice. When you baptize an infant (or anyone, for that matter), cross his forehead with olive oil. When he is sick, cross his forehead with olive oil. On Ash Wednesday, cross his forehead with ashes mixed with olive oil. And as he approaches death, cross his forehead with olive oil. The more our parishioners see the oil being used in conjunction with Holy Baptism, the more they will see the connection to Holy Baptism in times of illness, or even as death looms. The more times the pastor crosses his parishioners with his thumb on their foreheads (even without oil) - at baptism, during the benediction at sick calls, when he forgives their sins in private confession, any time a blessing is given to an individual, and even in the casket - the more people will see the staying power of baptism - that Holy Baptism is an eternal sacrament - not merely a ritual that is over and done with once the water is wiped off the brow, the pictures taken, and the candle extinguished.

When oil is used as a symbol of the "seal" - it confesses that something extraordinary and permanent has happened, that the baptized person has been "signed, sealed, and delivered." There is also a strong christology confessed as well, for the very word "Christ" means "anointed one." Anointing is symbolic of Christ being put on us at Holy Baptism. It is a reminder of the presence of the Anointed One in our times of need.

Of course, Luther's Small Catechism urges us to sign ourselves morning and evening in our routine prayers, and in times of great distress or fright in extraordinary prayers. We begin and end the Divine Service with the sign of the cross, as well as at several points within the Mass itself. The sign of the cross is a treasured gesture and confession, one that points not only to the cross, but also to the font and the powerful name of the Triune God - which has been put upon us as a "seal" as well.

The use of oil in our baptismal ritual as well as in our pastoral care to the sick is a good habit to get into, one that coming generations of American Lutherans will be able to relate to as a proclamation of Him into whose name we are baptized.


RevFisk said...

I'm all for what you said, but I wanted to comment on a fascinating website for an Evy Free church I came across the other day. In their standard "what we believe" section, where they listed the common fundamentals, such as water baptism and remembering supper, they also included that they regularly hold services for healing with oil anointings. If that's not the grandest paradox I've ever seen, then I don't know what is. Apparently an obscure text from James can impart divine power to oil (guaranteed!), but the words of the Lord himself could never do such things with water.

I just don't get evangelicals. Even though I was one, I just don't get 'em. It's like how you were a teenager once, but the further you get away from that age yourself, the less they make sense.

Father Hollywood said...

I think the use of anointing oil by a lot of evangelicals/pentecostals/non-denoms represents a visceral need for sacraments. We who live in time and space need a God who will deign to come to us in time and space (hence the baby Jesus, the miracle-working preacher, the crucified God-man, the One who rises not merely spiritually, but physically from the dead).

Christianity is sensual. Faith comes by "hearing." Faith doesn't come by direct revelation to the spirit, but comes to us through the senses.

And yet, there is a certain thread of Gnosticism running through Protestant theology - which has certainly infected us under the forms of pietism, a desire to place the Word over the Sacraments, a degradation of the office of the ministry, and the reduction of the Gospel to mere "happy Jesus talk."

Ultimately, not having sacraments is not very satisfying and does not jibe with the fleshly, incarnational theology of Scripture. Hence we see the "emergent church movement" chanting and using incense - desperately looking for "authenticity" and antiquity. We also see a renewed interest in liturgy, the church year, the creeds, and vestments - even among groups where this was unheard of even 10 years ago.

I think the interest in oil is a symptom of a deeper lack. And you're right - I think they're overlooking the most obvious sacrament of all: baptism.

To the early church, the connection between anointing and baptism was simply obvious. Hopefully, it will become so to us again.