As you are outwardly anointed with this holy oil, so may our heavenly Father grant you the inward anointing of the Holy Spirit. Of his great mercy, may he forgive you your sins, release you from suffering, and restore you to wholeness and strength. May he deliver you from all evil, preserve you in all goodness, and bring you to everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
A priest spends not a little time in health care facilities – hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living centers, the homes of parishioners – where he is granted the sacred privilege of being welcomed into moments of human weakness and vulnerability. It is a holy trust, and one that is best approached prayerfully and with great humility.
It is not only the patient who feels weak and vulnerable at such times though; as a priest I have felt that way myself. I stand in the intensive care unit surrounded by scores of machines whose price tags can only be imagined, as efficient doctors bustle around with their extensive knowledge and hard won expertise. Nurses exhibit their compassionate skill in practical ways that leave me standing clumsily in the corner, out of their way. Orderlies and nutritionists serve vital roles. But what of a priest? What do I offer? What can I do? I come “equipped” with a stock of oil and a prayer book, and on some occasions, with bread and wine. I can anoint. I can pray. I can bless. I can absolve. I can consecrate. I can be present. What are these compared to the expertise and efficiency of highly trained medical personnel? Though it is a false dichotomy I know, if the patient had the choice of either doctor or priest but not of both, do we wonder which he would choose? Weakness. Vulnerability.
But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption,31 so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Cor 1:27-31, ESV throughout).
Priests believe in doctors; we are not dualists who denigrate the body and idolize the spirit. Priests honor doctors – the wisdom of their learning and the strength of their expertise. And yet, there is greater wisdom, greater strength in the Great Physician of souls and bodies. While He has ordained healing through the hands of skilled men and women – physicians and surgeons and nurses with their medicine and scalpels and instruments and therapy – He has also ordained healing through the unworthy hands of weak and vulnerable priests with their oil and prayer books and bread and wine. Whether doctor or priest, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord,” for all healing is from the Father of Mercies from whom comes every good and perfect gift.
The oil I carry is blessed by our bishop, though the Book of Common Prayer allows for a prayer of blessing by a priest:
O Lord, holy Father, giver of health and salvation: Send your Holy Spirit to sanctify this oil; that, as your holy apostles anointed many that were sick and healed them, so may those who in faith and repentance receive this holy unction be made whole; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Thus blessed, the oil is sacramental, an outward and visible sign and channel of a hidden and inner grace through which the sick are made whole. By God’s grace, doctors may affect cures. By God’s grace, the Holy Spirit working through the priest’s oil-smeared thumb may affect wholeness. Who would despise either – physical cure or wholeness? God is the Great Physician of bodies and souls, after all. It is not so much cure but wholeness that I carry.
The bread and wine I bear – the gifts of God for the people of God – are the flesh and blood of Christ when received by faith with thanksgiving. About these Jesus, himself, said:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me” (John 6:53b-57).
Consecrated, the bread and wine are sacraments, the Gospel in sacred food and drink. It is not just bread and wine; it is life that I bring.
As a priest among physicians, I have no particular skill, no great expertise. It is true; I am as weak and vulnerable as any patient I have ever visited, and I will stay out of the way in a corner of the room while the experts are present. But I have oil and I have a prayer book. And if you ask me to, I will have bread and wine. And these are neither weak nor vulnerable. They are the very power and wisdom of God unto wholeness and salvation. And so a priest spends not a little time in health care facilities – a sacred privilege, a holy trust.
Photo: Public Domain