There are websites that identify over 101 uses for olive oil. It has been used for energy and, with a wick, to provide light. It has been used as a balm for aching muscles and to bind wounds. It can be used to clean, to lubricate, to nourish, to heal, to soothe, to comfort, to strengthen. Oil in any form has a peculiar trait which adds to its versatility, as well as making it difficult to store and to clean up when spilled: it finds its way into the nooks and crannies, the cracks and tight spaces. When the Church uses olive oil as a sacramental sign, none of this is lost — neither its versatility nor its ability to seep into the tight spots.
The genius of the sacraments is that they reach out to all parts of the human person, and they do so in ordinary ways. The sacraments are not elaborate rituals which remove us from everyday life; rather, they are a bridge between everyday life and eternity. The sacraments bring us in touch with our humanity by using common human experiences and worldly realities to convey otherworldly truths like mercy, healing, love and hope. While using sensible signs — everyday material things that capture the senses — the sacraments celebrate the outpouring of God’s grace in moments of life that are part of our shared human experience.
In any culture, families gather for meals at major events, friends celebrate the love of a man and a woman in marriage, well-wishers pray for the sick, and a celebration accompanies life’s major transitions. The wisdom of the sacraments is to capture the human experience of life’s peaks and life’s traumas and to wrap them in the mantle of God’s grace so that they can lift us above merely human experience and allow us to experience the Divine in the everyday.
The sacraments flow from the Incarnation, God taking human flesh and ministering to us in our flesh, on this earth, in human words, and with human compassion. Things we experience in everyday life — water, bread and wine, spousal love, sorrow and forgiveness, oil that seals and strengthens and heals — become in the sacraments not only a sign or symbol but a vessel of divine gifts: cleansing, feeding, loving, forgiving, healing, soothing, strengthening.
There are among the world’s great religions some which claim we should deny or even flee from the physical world, rising above material existence in favor of celebrating purely spiritual truths, perhaps even seeing in the material world and physical body a prison for the soul or mere illusions to be transcended. This is not the biblical Catholic understanding of God. It is not the Incarnation. It is not sacramental.
One of the things which distinguishes Catholic belief is the depth of the sacramental in our prayer and thought and worship: God asks us not to deny the material world, but rather to embrace it and to recognize His ability to use the tools of everyday experience to communicate His divine presence and assistance.
Truly Human Experience
The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is one of those moments in which the truly human experience of illness is brought together with God’s unction of grace, strength in our fear and questioning, healing in our struggle. The visible sign is oil, with, as mentioned, multiple uses throughout human history. Vegetable oil, preferably pure olive oil, is the matter used to sum up the graces God gives to one who calls out for strength and healing. The action of anointing — a human touch of person to person, a simple gesture that conveys the caress of a loving and powerful God — is the form of the sacrament of healing, together with words that speak of healing and divine assistance.
What is the purpose of the sacrament of the sick? The obsolete language of “the last rites” was very clear, even if inaccurate and foreboding in indicating preparation for death. The correct language of “anointing of the sick” lacks the clear sense of what the sacrament is all about. Should we expect a cure? A recovery from illness? Should perfect health result? If it does not, does it mean that the anointing was not successful, or that God’s grace was not conveyed?
Among the biblical texts which provide a basis for the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is the Letter of James, in which he instructs us to call the priests of the Church if there is someone sick in the community of the faithful. We read that the priests “should pray over (the sick person) and anoint [him] with oil in the name of the Lord, and the prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up” (5:14-15).
This Bible text reveals that the purpose of the sacrament is to “save the sick person.” We understand salvation to be less about physical miracles than about profound inner conversion. Although physical healing does occasionally occur in conjunction with sacramental anointing, its primary purpose is spiritual healing, spiritual grace, spiritual conversion.
When Jesus sent out the Twelve, the Gospel reports, “They anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them” (Mk 6:13).
Any priest who has been privileged to celebrate this sacrament regularly has seen physical strength restored and new vitality given through the prayer of faith and holy anointing. Miracles happen. Yet the deeper reality of the sacrament is more significant, more meaningful, more beautiful. When a person suffers from serious illness or is worried about impending surgery, the struggle consumes more than physical strength. One’s spiritual reserve is emptied; one’s spiritual energy depleted. The grace of the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick offers a boost, a recharge, a reconnection with the source and wellspring of all spiritual good. A soul depleted of spiritual energy is filled anew with grace. The renewed spiritual gift enables the physical body to carry the weight of illness or recovery, or if death is near, it allows the person to experience the nearness of God, diminishing fear.
St. James also tells us of another wonderful gift of this sacrament. With the priest’s prayer comes forgiveness of sins: “If he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven” (Jas 15:15). Anointing of the sick is not the same as the Sacrament of Penance, but in many instances these two sacraments are celebrated together. It is because of this connection with forgiveness of sins that only priests can administer the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. Oil seals and strengthens, gives energy and provides light. So it is with the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick: it is an outward, sensible sign of the unction of Divine grace.