Sermon during the month of the holy souls: on extreme unction

“A certain ruler came up and adored him saying: Lord, my daughter is even now dead.”

In this month, even more than at other times, we are praying for our beloved dead. What is it that makes death so momentous a thing? It is not only that the deceased are separated from us, and that we cannot call them back. It is above all the fact that death fixes our choices, for good or ill. While there is breath left in our bodies, we can turn to God — or away from Him. But once the soul has left the body, its attitude is forever fixed, for God or against Him. “As the tree falls,” says King Solomon, “so shall it lie.”

Given that our passage from this world is so momentous, we should surely expect that our Blessed Lord, in setting up His Church, would have provided also some means to ease our passage from this world into eternity. After all, His grace is there for us when first we come into the world; in the prevailing darkness, baptism lights a flame in our soul that should never go out. So, how would He fail to provide for us also remedies against the dangers that await us at the end of life, that He may bring us into the heavenly kingdom?

He has done so: and the greatest remedy is the sacrament that we call extreme unction, or the anointing of the sick. It’s called “extreme” unction because it is the last of the anointings that we expect to receive, after those of baptism and confirmation; and in some parts of the Church, Christians are also anointed on great feast-days. The word “extreme” doesn’t mean that the sacrament should be delayed until someone is sure to die, let alone at the very point of death. As soon as there begins to be any danger to life, a priest should be called. In fact, the Catechism of the Council of Trent tells us that to wait unnecessarily until someone is unconscious is a serious sin, as a person will benefit from this sacrament much more if he receives it when his mind is alert, and he can co-operate with God’s grace.

Where in the Scriptures do we read of the sacrament of extreme unction? Above all, in the letter of St James:

“Is any man sick among you? Let him bring 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 be in sins, they shall be forgiven him.”

And straight after this he adds, “Confess therefore your sins to one another”, since the best preparation for this sacrament is a good confession.

What benefits can we look for when we receive this sacrament? For one thing, it will take away the venial sins that sometimes lie on our soul like a thick coating of dust, and which we may well then be too weak to deal with in any other way. That’s why St James says, “If he be in sins, they shall be forgiven him.” If heaven is like a marriage feast, as our Lord liked to say, then extreme unction is like a laundry, that will make our clothes fit to be seen in. 

But there is also another benefit, which is even more proper to this sacrament. One of the many bad effects that sin has on us is to lessen our desire for heaven. Sin makes us fearful, sometimes, at the prospect of appearing before our Judge; or else it just weakens our spiritual powers. Even when we repent, that spiritual weakness remains. But at a wedding feast, there is no place for the sick, of for convalescents. Likewise, heaven is not a place of decay, of but vigour, and eternal youth. So, the psalmist says, speaking of God, that He “forgiveth all thy iniquities”; he “healeth all thy diseases”; “thy youth shall be renewed like the eagle’s”. I think that the eagle here means Christ, who, as St Paul says, will transform our weak bodies, and make them like His glorious body.

But finally, God sometimes uses this sacrament not to bring people to heaven straightaway, but rather to send them back to this life for a while. Why did He revive Jairus’s daughter? Surely because He had some mission for her to accomplish on earth. If something similar happens to us when we are anointed, then we are not meant to treat that time simply as a bonus, but rather to ask God to show us what the work is that He still has in mind for us to accomplish.