7th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Mark 2:1-12
“Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, pick up your mat and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins on earth” – he said to the paralytic, “I say to you, rise, pick up your mat, and go home.”
We have all heard that some people have been physically healed through the reception of the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, but we wonder why this occurs only sometimes and not always. Why is it that God heals one, but allows another to die? What makes Anointing here cause physical healing, but there only spiritual healing?
This Sunday’s Gospel gives us the beginning of an explanation to this complex question.
Why did Jesus heal the paralytic?
From the text of the Gospel, it is clear that our Savior’s primary work in regards to the paralytic who was lowered through the roof by his friends was not so much to heal him physically, as to give him true spiritual healing through the forgiveness of his sins.
This is why, when the paralytic is lowered before him on the stretcher, the Lord first says, Child, your sins are forgiven. Was this what the sick man was looking for? Did his friends expect this? Perhaps not. It seems at least somewhat likely that the primary goal of the paralytic and of his friends who brought him was to gain physical healing. However, Jesus gives the man something even greater – for what good is the health of the body, if the soul lies in spiritual death?
The paralytic and his friends truly had faith (most especially, we see that the four friends had great faith), but the scribes doubted. “Why does this man speak that way? He is blaspheming. Who but God alone can forgive sins?”, they say.
Indeed, the scribes are partially right – only God can forgive sins. But they are wrong insofar as they do not believe that Jesus is truly God. Further, the protestants in our own day err when they claim that a priest cannot forgive sins – for they do not recognize that the priest speaks in the person of Christ, who is truly God himself.
That the scribes might be shamed, and the lowly exalted (we mean the paralytic), our Lord effects a great physical healing by restoring health to the sick man. The physical healing was no end in itself, but was for the spiritual exaltation of the paralytic and his friends. Further, by this miraculous healing, the Lord Jesus teaches us plainly that he is truly God and therefore has the authority to forgive all sins.
Anointing of the Sick – spiritual healing
As we have discussed before in numerous articles, Anointing of the Sick is principally ordered to spiritual healing. This sacrament forgives sin and, more specifically, was instituted as the means of removing the “remnants” of sin – which is to say, the weakness of the will and the darkening of the intellect which is the result of actual sin (which is distinct from that concupiscence and ignorance which stems from original sin).
Anointing of the Sick was given to us by Christ to strengthen man for the particular judgment which comes immediately after death. This is why Anointing of the Sick may only be given to those who have begun to be in danger of death – and we do not mean only those on their death bed, but rather include all those who are in a remote (but real) danger of death through either sickness or old age (and not from any other cause, like war or travel).
Anointing of the Sick – which has been called (even by Vatican II) “Extreme Unction”, and is known also as the “sacrament of the dying” (in both Trent and in the Catechism, CCC 1523) – confers grace to the dying so that they may be strengthened against “the temptation to discouragement and anguish in the face of death.” (CCC 1520) Thus, further, Anointing of the Sick forgives any sins which may yet remain on the soul, so long as the sick man does not have a contempt for the sacrament of Reconciliation (i.e. a man can’t use Anointing as a way of getting out of going to confession).
Anointing of the Sick – physical healing
Still, although the principle aim of Anointing of the Sick is to confer spiritual healing to the soul, the Catechism tells us that there will also be a bodily or physical healing as well, “if such is God’s will.” (CCC 1520) When, therefore, does God will to give physical healing through Anointing? And, Why doesn’t he always give a miraculous healing?
The Catechism cites the Council of Florence which teaches: “This sacrament should be given only to the sick of whose death there is fear […] Now the effect [of Anointing of the Sick] is the healing of the mind and, moreover, in so far as it is expedient, of the body also.” Therefore, whenever it is “expedient”, God will use this sacrament to give physical healing to the body.
St. Thomas Aquinas teaches us that, just as bodily washing is given through Baptism as a sign of the spiritual cleansing of the soul, so too does God sometimes confer a bodily healing through Anointing as a sign of the spiritual healing of the soul. But, there is this difference, for water naturally has the power to wash the soul, but olive oil (which is used in Anointing) does not have of itself the power to heal those who are dying. Therefore, it is only when God chooses to work a miraculous healing that the body is physically healed through Anointing.
And so, the Angelic Doctor concludes: “It follows that a bodily healing does not always ensue from this sacrament, but only when it is requisite for the spiritual healing: and then it produces it always, provided there be no obstacle on the part of the recipient.” (ST Supp, q.30, a.2)
In other words, whenever a miraculous healing of the body would be necessary or highly expedient for the spiritual healing of the soul, God will grant such a miracle through the sacrament. In such a case, the miraculous healing is not to be attributed to the holiness of the priest, but to the very power of the sacrament itself.
On the other hand, if a sick man receives Anointing and does not gain a miraculous recovery, this shows that such a physical healing was not needed in order to strengthen his faith and hope as he prepares for death and the judgment.
Anointing of the Sick and the healing of the paralytic
Much as in this Sunday’s Gospel, Christ works a miraculous physical healing through the sacrament of Anointing only as a secondary effect which is ordered to the primary purpose of spiritual healing. Our Savior healed the paralytic in order to encourage the faith of the sick man and of his friends, and also to confound the pride of the scribes who doubted – the physical healing was directly ordered to spiritual benefit.
Why Anointing is not given for anything other than serious and life-threatening illness or old age
From this, it becomes clear why the Church does not allow any but those who have begun to be in danger of death to receive Anointing of the Sick (cf. Code of Canon Law 1004.1, CCC 1514). Why Anointing is not given for minor illnesses, nor for any sickness which has not begun to be a real (if remote) threat to the life of the individual.
If Anointing is ordered principally to the spiritual healing of a man, so that he will be ready to meet his Savior in the particular judgment after his death, and, if physical healing will only be given (per the power of the sacrament itself) in cases where this is needed in order to better prepare a man for a holy death; then it is clear that the sacrament is not meant for those illnesses which do not put a man in danger of death.
This is part of the confusion of so many in the Church today – some think that Anointing of the Sick is primarily for physical healing, rather than for the spiritual healing needed to be well prepared for death and judgment. But, since Anointing is primarily about preparing the soul for the particular judgment, it is clear that this sacrament is not given for minor ailments, but only for life-threatening sickness (and old age) which puts a man into danger of death.
From this also, we see why the Church does not confer the sacrament of Anointing upon young children prior to the age of reason – as they have not sinned, they have no spiritual illness (caused from actual sin); and therefore they would have no need of a physical healing in order to be well disposed for the judgment, surely every baptized child who dies before the age of reason will attain immediately to the glory of heaven (and, thus, Anointing of the Sick would be superfluous).