In the Paschal Mystery Christ began the union with man in the community of the Church. The mystery of the Church is expressed in this: that already in the act of Baptism, which brings about a configuration with Christ, and then through his Sacrifice—sacramentally through the Eucharist—the Church is continually being built up spiritually as the Body of Christ. In this Body, Christ wishes to be united with every individual, and in a special way he is united with those who suffer. The words quoted above from the Letter to the Colossians bear witness to the exceptional nature of this union. For, whoever suffers in union with Christ— just as the Apostle Paul bears his "tribulations" in union with Christ— not only receives from Christ that strength already referred to but also "completes" by his suffering "what is lacking in Christ's afflictions". This evangelical outlook especially highlights the truth concerning the creative character of suffering. The sufferings of Christ created the good of the world's redemption. This good in itself is inexhaustible and infinite. No man can add anything to it. But at the same time, in the mystery of the Church as his Body, Christ has in a sense opened his own redemptive suffering to all human suffering. In so far as man becomes a sharer in Christ's sufferings—in any part of the world and at any time in history—to that extent he in his own way completes the suffering through which Christ accomplished the Redemption of the world (Salvifici Dolores, n. 24).
The celebration of the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick has everything to do with this union with Christ in our suffering, since it is through that Sacrament that we are reminded that we share the Relationship with God in a new way, just as Jesus did in his humanity. Those who are visited or come to receive the Anointing are told of their nearness to Christ who suffers with them and for them, and that Relationship is recalled.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Frodo, the Hobbit who carries the Ring, is given a gift by the queen of the Elves. It is a vial that contains the light of the Evenstar. She tells him to use it when all other lights seem to have gone out, and it would carry him through. He makes use of the light when he is in the darkness of Mordor and death seems dangerously near.
Every priest has a small gold, silver or brass container. It may be in his car, in his pocket, in his desk, by his bed – or perhaps in all those places. In this container is the Oil of the Infirm, blessed during Holy Week by the bishop and distributed to all the parishes throughout a diocese. It is this oil that is used for the Anointing of the Sick – whether a person is going for surgery, experiencing severe pain and suffering, psychologically and spiritually distress, or even dying. When I bring mine out, I like to describe it to people as “Church in a jar.” Why? Because this oil, kept in every parish church, is a sacramental sign not only of Christ’s healing presence but also of the prayers and support of all a person’s fellow parishioners.
Illness and suffering are isolating experiences. A person is often limited, cut off from family and friends – physically, mentally, and spiritually. A visit from this Sacrament tells a person, “You are not alone. God is here, and you are near to Him.”
While Anointing of the Sick may seem like a highly personal and individual Sacrament, it – like all the Sacraments – has its communal and ecclesial – and, yes, moral – element as well. As a sign of God’s life and an expression of our life in Christ, reflection on this Sacrament calls for a certain way of living and acting from us all.
First, this Sacrament recognizes above all that all life has value, no matter what the condition. People don’t “wear out their usefulness” as our bodies and minds deteriorate. In celebrating the Anointing of the Sick, we are affirming that this life – this life of suffering and personal “passion” – has meaning, and that meaning is found in our unity with Christ. Giving up on that life means giving up on the grace that our life shares with God.
Second, it means that we all have a duty to reach out and continue to remember and include even the weakest and most limited of our brothers and sisters. Even when the church is full on a Sunday there are still many more who wish they could be here. Who are they? How do we know? What can we do for them?
Finally, the Sacrament redirected the attention of the suffering individual to their membership in a community; at the same time, it reminds the community of the needs of the individuals who share in that communion. Once again, the Sacrament is oriented toward communion.
Every relationship needs those little (and big!) reminders of the specialness of each partner. A bunch of flowers for now apparent reason; a card to say “I’m thinking of you”; a phone call when you haven’t seen each other in a while. The Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, while it brings real effects, is also one of these reminders of a person’s nearness to God and of His presence in their life – even when they are feeling cut off and alone. Christ comes to them in this Sacrament; the Church is present too; and the Relationship is recalled.