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The Touch of Christ: Lectures on the Christian Sacraments

By Granville Mercer Williams, S.S.J.E.
Rector of St. Paul's Church, Brooklyn, New York

New York: Edwin S. Gorham, 1928.

Chapter VIII. Holy Unction

THE Biblical basis for the Sacrament of Holy Unction is found in the fifth chapter of the Epistle of St. James where we read "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 shall save him that is sick, and the Lord shall raise him up: and if he have committed sins it shall be forgiven him." And we also read that during our Lord's lifetime, he sent out the twelve "and they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many that were sick, and healed them."

Our Lord's own ministry of healing was an important part of His work, and that this work of spiritual healing was continued after His ascension by His followers is evidenced in the Book of Acts. It is probable that the directions given in Saint James' Epistle were followed by the early Church, though the private nature of this ministration precludes our finding many references to the use of Unction in the writings of the Fathers. Gradually, however, prescribed forms for the ritual use of oil for anointing the sick appear.

St. James seems to set forth a two-fold effect of this Sacrament, namely, a physical healing of the sick person and also certain spiritual benefits signified in the phrase about the forgiveness of sins. Possibly be cause of the fact that the administration of the Sacrament was not always followed by physical recovery from sickness, in Mediaeval times the Sacrament came to be looked upon rather on its spiritual side as an immediate preparation for death than as a means of physical healing. The First Prayer Book of Edward the Sixth issued in 1549 contained a form of Unction at the end of the Order for the visitation of the Sick, introduced by the following rubric:--"If the sick person desires to be anointed, then shall the Priest anoint him upon the forehead or breast only, making the sign of the cross." The form given is as follows:-- "As with this visible oil thy body outwardly is anointed; so our heavenly Father, Almighty God, grant of His infinite goodness, that thy soul inwardly may be anointed with the Holy Ghost, who is the Spirit of all strength, comfort, relief and gladness: and vouchsafe for His great mercy (if it be His blessed will) to restore unto thee thy bodily health and strength, to serve Him, and send thee release of all thy pains, troubles and diseases both in body and mind. And howsoever His goodness (by His divine and unsearchable providence) shall dispose of thee: we His unworthy ministers and servants, humbly beseech the eternal Majesty to do with thee according to the multitude of His innumerable mercies, and to pardon thee all thy sins and offences, committed by all thy bodily senses, passions, and carnal affections, who also vouchsafe mercifully to grant unto thee ghostly strength, by His Holy Spirit, to withstand and overcome all temptations and assaults of thine adversary, that in no wise he prevail against thee, but that thou mayest have perfect victory and triumph against the devil, sin and death, through Christ our Lord: who by His death hath overcome the prince of death, and with the Father and the Holy Ghost evermore liveth and reigneth God, world without end. Amen."

This form was removed from the English Prayer Book in 1552 and has unhappily never been restored. Nor is there any form provided in our American Book.

It is evident, however, that mere omission cannot hinder any priest from employing so scriptural a rite, and, as a matter of fact, the use of Unction is now largely being revived amongst us. There are a number of Bishops in the American Church who now bless oil for this purpose, and any priest who has had any experience in using Unction can bear witness to the number of remarkable restorations to health brought about by its use. It is essential when so many are turning from the Church to health and healing cults because of the neglect by the Church of her heritage of the power of spiritual healing, that she should reclaim her neglected treasures and restore the use of the Sacrament of Holy Unction.

Holy Unction is not a charm and should not be used for every minor ailment, but it ought to be employed in every case of serious illness. Generally it should be preceded by sacramental Confession and Absolution and by the reception of Holy Communion. Unhappily too many of our people neglect to notify their priests when they are ill, and a strange superstition has gained ground that the coming of the priest to the bedside of a sick person may be a harbinger of death. A more general use of the other Sacraments together with Holy Unction by the sick would soon do away with this superstition, and would make the priest appear, as indeed he is, a bringer of joy, pardon and life.

So we conclude this very imperfect survey of the value and place of the Sacraments in the life of the Christian. They touch, or ought to touch our lives at every point, bringing to tired bodies and souls the quickening streams of grace which flow from the Heart of God. We find indeed that the Holy Sacraments, like prayer, are the means whereby we are "bound by gold chains about the feet of God." They remind us that Jesus, Whom we worship, still works among his people, as He worked among them during the time of His earthly life. The Christian Sacraments are, to the believer, the very Touch of Christ Himself.

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