July 22, 2020
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The Anointing of the Sick in Patristic Sources

The Anointing of the Sick in Patristic Sources

We have all heard the famous biblical verse thanks to which the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick was instituted by Christ through his Mystical Spouse and our mother, the Church. Is any among you sick? 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; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven (Jas 5:14-15).

Such a verse surely shows the biblical-apostolic tradition of the praxis of the anointing of the sick in the Church. The latter sacrament bears the name of the Lord Jesus and it is also the prayer of the faith. Thus, these two components essentially show that this sacrament, and in that case every sacrament, is the result of the joined work of Christ, as the Head of the Mystical Body, the Church, and the cooperation of the entire Mystical Body, the Church. Head and Body, through the power of the Holy Spirit, bring about the saving effect of the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.

The patristic tradition, immersed as it is in the Word of God, took at heart the theological and pastoral relevance of this powerful biblical verse coming from the catholic epistle of St. James the Apostle. In this short reflection we shall be appreciating five patristic contributions coming from St. John Chrysostom, Caesar of Arles, the Council of Nicea, Bishop Serapion and Origen. 

St John Chrysostom (Ἰωάννης ὁ Χρυσόστομος; c. 349 – 14 September 407), was a Patriarch of Constantinople and an important Early Church Father. In both Church history and patrology he is known for his preaching, and public speaking, his denunciation of abuse of authority, by both ecclesiastical and political leaders, the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, and his ascetic insights. The epithet Χρυσόστομος (Chrysostomos, anglicized as Chrysostom) means “golden-mouthed” in Greek and denotes his celebrated eloquence. Chrysostom was among the most prolific authors in the early Christian Church, exceeded only by St. Augustine of Hippo in the quantity of his surviving writings.

“The priests of Judaism had power to cleanse the body from leprosy—or rather, not to cleanse it at all, but to declare a person as having been cleansed. . . . Our priests have received the power not of treating with the leprosy of the body, but with spiritual uncleanness; not of declaring cleansed, but of actually cleansing. . . . Priests accomplish this not only by teaching and admonishing, but also by the help of prayer. Not only at the time of our regeneration [in baptism], but even afterward, they have the authority to forgive sins: ‘Is there anyone among you sick? Let him call in the priests of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith shall save the sick man, and the Lord shall raise him up, and if he has committed sins, he shall be forgiven’” (On the Priesthood 3:6:190ff [A.D. 387]).

The second Father of the Church who reflects on the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is Caesar of Arles. His Latin name is Caesarius Arelatensis (468/470 – 27 August 542 AD), sometimes called “of Chalon” (Cabillonensis or Cabellinensis) from his birthplace Chalon-sur-Saône. Caesar was the foremost ecclesiastic of his generation in Merovingian Gaul. He is considered to be of the last generation of church leaders of Gaul that worked to promote extensive ascetic elements into the Western Christian tradition. According to William E. Klingshirn’s study of Caesarius presents him as having the reputation of a “popular preacher of great fervour and enduring influence”. Among those who made the greatest influence on Caesarius were St. Augustine of HippoJulianus Pomerius, and John Cassian.

“As often as some infirmity overtakes a man, let him who is ill receive the body and blood of Christlet him humbly and in faith ask the presbyters for blessed oil, to anoint his body, so that what was written may be fulfilled in him: ‘Is anyone among you sick? Let him bring in the presbyters, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he be in sins, they will be forgiven him. . . . See to it, brethren, that whoever is ill hasten to the church, both that he may receive health of body and will merit to obtain the forgiveness of his sins” (Sermons 13[325]:3 [A.D. 542]).

The third patristic source for the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is the Council of Nicea. This was a council of Christian bishops convened in the Bithynian  city of Nicea (now Iżnik, Bursa province, Turkey) by the Roman Emperor Constantine I in AD 325. This ecumenical council was the first effort to attain consensus in the Church through an assembly, representing all of Christendom. Its main achievements were agreement of the Christological question regarding the divine nature of God the Son and his relationship to God the Father, the construction of the first part of the Nicene Creed, establishing uniform observance of the date of Easter, and the promulgation  of early canon law. 

“Concerning the departing, the ancient canonical law is still to be maintained, to wit, that, if any man be at the point of death, he must not be deprived of the last and most indispensable Viaticum.” (canon 13 [A.D. 325]).

The fourth patristic author, which speaks about the anointing of the sick, is Bishop Serapion of Antioch. Serapion was a Patriarch of Antioch (191–211). He is known both in Church history and patristic study primarily through his theological writings. Unfortunately all but a few fragments of his works have survived.

We beseech you, Savior of all men, you that have all virtue and powerFather of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and we pray that you send down from heaven the healing power of the only-begotten [Son] upon this oil, so that for those who are anointed . . . it may be effected for the casting out of every disease and every bodily infirmity . . . for good grace and remission of sins . . . ” (The Sacramentary of Serapion 29:1 [A.D. 350]).

The last patristic contributor regarding the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is surely the great Origen of Alexandria (c. 184 – c. 253). He was also known as Origen Adamantius. Being  an early Christian scholar, ascetic, and theologian, who was born and spent the first half of his career in Alexandria, Origen dedicated himself to theological reflection. In fact, he was a prolific writer who wrote extensively, roughly 2,000 treatises in multiple branches of theology, including textual criticism, biblical exegisis as well as biblical hermeneutics, homiletics, and spirituality. Origen was one of the most influential figures in early Christian theology, apologetics,  and asceticism. John Anthony McGuckin, in his book The Westminster Handbook to Origen, described Origen as “the greatest genius the early church ever produced”.

“[The penitent Christian] does not shrink from declaring his sin to a priest of the Lord and from seeking medicine . . . [of] which the apostle James says: ‘If then there is anyone sick, let him call the presbyters of the Church, and let them impose hands upon him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and if he be in sins, they shall be forgiven him.” (Homilies on Leviticus 2:4 [A.D. 250]).

What can we conclude from these patristic contributions concerning the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick? First, it is the ordained priest who has received the power from Christ, through his Church, of treating the spiritual uncleanness. This he does with the help of prayer. Furthermore, it is the ordained priest who has received the authority to forgive sins. Secondly, the sick person is greatly encouraged to receive the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Christ, “the last and most indispensable Viaticum”. Third, when knowing that s/he is sick the person plagued by sickness is urgently encouraged to hasten to the Church to receive the Anointing of the Sick and to obtain the forgiveness of his sins. Fourth, the Sacrament of Confession is medicinal indeed.

It is my fervent and humble prayer that when hospital chaplains administer the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, that all may see and know that it is Jesus Christ, who gently imparts His healing and loving touch.

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Written by
Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap