Whatever happened to Extreme Unction? Who are the baleful liturgists who drove a stake through the sacrament and nailed it to the ground?
No need to answer that. I know who they are. They are the same ruinous bien pensants who confused the Zeitgeist of the 1960s and ‘70s with the cooing of the Holy Spirit. Let God forgive them; I cannot.
Death of Daniel O’Connell. Currier Lithograph (1847). Museum of the City of New York.
Unction for those in extremis was stripped of its exclusive purpose and ritual dignity in the wake of Vatican II. All astringent solemnity is gone. The reduction—a theft—is implicit in the name change: sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. If the theology has not changed, the practice surely has. Last Rites are obsolete, outmoded by cultural resistance to the awful significance of a ceremony so named.
We are all sick in some way, are we not? Sick of sorrow, sick of coping, worn down by the stresses of the lived life. We want to be healed of caring too much, or cured of paralysis in caring at all. Old injuries act up, a knee is out, iron is too low, the PSA too high. Then comes that hint of cataracts, the heart murmur, or the family history of diabetes. Count in the growing list of pathogens that make the nightly news. Lastly, and for lack of greater specificity, there is what our forefathers knew as the ague. We are only made of clay; and clay breaks down.
So my parish offers what it calls a Healing Mass. One Sunday of every year, parishioners are invited to file altarward with their vulnerabilities and complaints to receive the Anointing of the Sick. The not-so-sick, the anxious, and the out-of-sorts queue, palms up, for bodily and spiritual healing. It is this same quick, casual anointing that substitutes now for the Last Rites.
The old rubrics were strict:
The sacrament may not be given more than once during the same illness, unless after receiving the sacrament, the sick person has recovered from the danger and then has a critical relapse.
That was then. In these indulgent times, so obsessed with “wellness,” the holy anointing is closer to a spa treatment than a rite of initiation into the dreaded mysteries of death. A woman I know in California wrote to tell me that she stood for anointing monthly while her husband lay terminally ill. The sacrament was prophylactic against the impending loneliness of widowhood. All to the good, the comfort of it. But heartbreak is not a mortal disease.
From the Codex Trujillo del Peru (18th C.). Real Biblioteca del Palacio Real, Madrid.
A precious friend died not long ago. Some weeks before the end, while he was still able to speak and take the Eucharist, the local pastor came to anoint him. In requesting the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, the family anticipated Extreme Unction as they had always known it. They were wrong.
The priest commissioned to carry out this liturgy in the name of Christ arrived in dungarees, a plaid flannel shirt, and red suspenders. He had troubled to put on cologne but not his Roman collar. Was dishabille a democratic gesture toward the demotic tastes of the times? By the look of him, he had come to help with yard work. Left behind with his clerics was any visible sign of the divine Agape that was the reason for his being there.
He offered no personal words of consolation, no talk of Jesus, nothing of what it means to pass through death to life as a child of God in Christ. After a bit of light chat about his sciatica and the hazards of an icy road, he announced his intention to get on with administering the Sacrament of the Sick.
The dying man quipped, “Well, I certainly qualify.”
It was the remark of a man fully conscious, poised for accompaniment through the concluding step of the dialogue between himself and his God. But the move never came. The family was not asked to leave the room while the priest heard the man’s last confession. There was none. After a brief spasm of blessings, the priest was gone. Bewildered by grief, and constrained by deference toward a priest in their home, the family saw him politely to the door. But the deficiency stayed behind, dangling like an unpaid debt.
Some weeks later the wife asked why the traditional sacrament of Penance had been omitted. The answer: “Unless someone requests confession, we don’t offer it any more. That would be an intrusion.”
The pity of it.
Nikolai Ge. Crucifixion (1893). Musee d’Orsay, Paris.
We call it Anointing of the Sick. But the dying are not sick. Not any longer. They and sickness are finished with each other. Sickness is a tool of mortality, a loyal servant to the germ of death we were born with. In the moribund, sickness has done its work. It has accomplished what it was ordained to do. No matter now the affliction or assault that opens the grave. Every deathbed is a slaying stone.
The dying lie at the edge of the world, at the very verge of their allotted time. In their extremity, they suffer on the margin of time itself. All flesh is grass, Isaiah tells us. It shrivels at the root; dust in the wind. Where is grass on Golgotha? The place of the skull is rock. The shadow of the Cross is sharpest there. And in that shadow mercy learns its own name.
A fatal chasm exists between the hour of death and the deluge of unwelcome conditions that overtake us. Sickness yearns for treatment; death thirsts solely for redemption. And for the last rite that escorts the dying into the fellowship of those for whom time no longer exists.
Extreme Unction has been relativized, made friendly for a generation that does not want to hear the death knell in the words Last Rites. All the while, death grins in our faces.