MY FAVORITE ACCOUNT OF JESUS’ HEALING POWER is recounted in all three of the synoptic Gospels (Matthew 9:1-8; Mark 2:1-12; Luke 5:17-26). In the story, a paralyzed man is carried by his friends and placed before the Lord. Mark and Luke add the detail that these friends were so determined they even took apart the roof of the house where Jesus was in order to lower their friend onto the floor in front of him! In all three accounts, Jesus is moved to cure the man when he observes the faith of these determined friends. Oh, what a lesson for all of us!
Sacraments are, at their heart, profoundly communal. Each manifestation of God’s grace, through earthly elements such as bread, wine, water, oil and human touch, brings us into deeper union with God and with one another. It is most appropriate, then, that sacraments be celebrated in the context of the gathered community.
Such is the practice at my home parish of Sacred Heart, Sauk Rapids, where the parish celebrates the communal anointing of the sick twice yearly during the weekend liturgies. Our pastor, Father Ralph Zimmerman, enlists the help of another priest, and the two of them work their way through the congregation, anointing those in need of healing. Some aspects of this celebration make it particularly poignant:
- The person to be anointed stays with his or her family in their place in the pew, and the priest comes to them. In this way, the family is close by while their loved one is anointed.
- A member of our parish who is involved in health ministry, such as parish nursing, pastoral ministry, or eucharistic ministry to the homebound, accompanies the priest and places his or her hand on the shoulder of the person being anointed. This gesture symbolizes our parish community’s support for those who are experiencing illness in body, mind or soul.
- During the anointing, the congregation sings a selection of hymns about healing to lend vocal support to those being anointed.
- The anointing takes place after the homily, placing it in the heart of the liturgy. At its completion, we move to the table of the Eucharist.
During the eight years I was privileged to serve Sacred Heart as pastoral minister, I was profoundly moved by my participation in this sacrament. As pastoral minister, I frequently visited sick parishioners in the hospital, in their homes or in other care facilities. I was often invited to journey with individuals and their families through long treatments, recoveries and sometimes even the death of a sick loved one. In all these cases, the powerful witness of community was evident: in assuring families that our parish was praying for them, in sharing prayer blankets crafted by members of our widows’ group, and in observing how family and community came together to provide for the needs of the person with such loving care.
Ultimately, the sacrament of anointing imparts grace not only to the direct recipient, but also to the larger community. During our parish celebration, even those who do not receive anointing are blessed by participating in this ritual, which raises awareness that those around us are struggling in ways we do not know. We are empowered to pray for and with them, as they do for us.
The story of Jesus’ cure of the paralyzed man occurs early in each of the synoptic Gospels. Each account ends with the astonishment of the crowd but with no mention of those friends who were so vital in attaining healing for their companion. We are left to wonder: What effect did this healing gesture have on those who participated, who assisted one who was unable to reach Jesus by his own power? Though these friends remain anonymous, this much we can surmise: They, too, were transformed by the Lord’s healing touch. It is the same with each of us.
MAUREEN OTREMBA is an adjunct instructor of theology at the College of St. Benedict/St. John’s University. She and her husband, Jim, are frequent speakers on marriage, family, parenting and Christian life balance. They are parents of three children and members of Sacred Heart Parish, Sauk Rapids.