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Sacraments 5    Anointing1

Some grow up in church life never even knowing that anointing with oil ever takes place – nor realising it’s in the list of sacraments of the church. In other parishes people know about it – but, shh, it’s only when people are at death’s door.

But oil is used in many circumstances – like when the Bishop came to our confirmation and anointed our candidates with oil from the Holy Land. Traditionally oil is used for celebrations2, in healing3, and at the time of death4 in a commendation to God in a person’s onward journey.

Sacramental use of oil is therefore confusing. It’s not one thing – it’s a lot of things. On healing occasions it’s difficult to distinguish anointing from the laying on of hands – and it isn’t clear why we have two ceremonies, and why one is a “sacrament” and one isn’t. Clearly laying hands on people is a sacramental act even though it’s not in the official list of “sacraments” of the church.

But the link with ordinary health work is there in the easing of bodily ailments by rubbing in ointments and the like. The ceremonial application of oil in a framework of prayer to God offers people a new view of what is happening to them – a chance to connect their lives afresh with God and accept what God has to say about their illness, their health and their healing.

It might be a bit daring to say that this is a sort of “spiritual massage”, but perhaps that’s the way to see it – as something deeply soothing and health-giving, something which gets at the root of the spirit, no matter what is wrong, no matter whether it’s curable5. Simple prayers with a simple act of anointing on the forehead [and perhaps hands] with oil blessed6 and kept in the parish church7.