Fasting, prayer, and laying on of hands always seem to indicate someone was about to be sent on a mission. The Church in Antioch participated in fasting, prayer, and laying on of hands for Saul and Barnabas prior to their mission to Cyprus. Their mission? To share the light of Christ with the world.
I realized recently that there are several sacraments where hands are lain upon a person. The link between ordination and mission is fairly easy to see, and is very similar to the mission of Saul and Barnabas: spread the light of Christ and minister to the People of God. Confirmation, likewise, has a laying on of hands when the forehead is anointed with Chrism. (CCC 1300) The link in confirmation to mission is, similarly, not difficult to see: Confirmation seals a person with the Holy Spirit to go out into the world and spread the Good News, even through trials and difficulties.
The third sacrament with the laying on of hands, however, is a bit more of a mystery in its mission. During the anointing of the sick, the priest lays hands upon the receiver of the sacrament. Anointing of the Sick is no longer reserved to those in immediate danger of death, so what does this gesture mean?
I think that there are two possible ways to understand this symbol of the laying on of hands. The first is that the laying on of hands reminds the Christian of his or her mission that was given in Baptism, was strengthened in Confirmation, and was renewed with each reception of the Holy Eucharist: to spread the Good News and to be a light shining out to the world. I think, though, that this is just a part of it. Saint Pope John Paul II taught the Church many things through his writings and his example. One of these things was the value in suffering.
Suffering is a paradox. We cannot understand, and it will never truly make sense to us. We can grasp at why we suffer, as Saint Pope John Paul II did beautifully in his encyclical Salvifici Doloris: On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering. (Vatican Amazon) When we suffer in a Christian way, we can inspire others to turn towards God—in a way we can be missionaries in our suffering. Furthermore, suffering inspires compassion within others, which is another their soul may be moved toward God.
The laying on of hands during the anointing, then, would remind us of our Christian mission in general, and aid us in taking on a special mission of evangelization through our suffering. The laying on of hands also has an ancient connection with fervent intercessory prayer, which St. James calls for when ministering to the sick. (James 5:14-15)
When a person is dying, I think that the laying on of hands during anointing takes on yet another meaning. When a person in the twilight of their life, and is close to death, that person is preparing for the journey to eternal life. He or she is preparing to embark on a new mission, a mission no longer bound to the chains of an earthly body. When hands are lain on a person nearing death, it is commissioning him or her on a new stage in the human journey: the journey home, the journey to Heaven. It is possible for this final journey to end up in different place, to Hell, but this is why Catholics have the combination of prayers and sacraments that used to be called “Last Rites.” (I will write a full article about Last Rites in the near future—this post is already long!)
Today, let us remember the mission that God has given to us. Let us go bravely into the world which is becoming increasingly hostile to religion, especially when religion that stands up to it, and show everyone that it is a joy to be Christian, and by our joy, let us spread the light of Christ.
Today’s Readings: Acts 12:24-13:5a; Ps 67:2-3, 5, 6 and 8; Jn 12:44-50