I have had the privilege of being the annoint(ee) as well as the annoint(er). And they have each been some of the most memorable and moving moments of being church together. I have anointed people in the hospital, in their homes, and at their places of employment. Once I visited a high school girl the night before a scheduled back surgery. I offered to anoint her only to discover that I had forgotten my oil at the church. We decided that using some of her cucumber lotion was good enough given the circumstances. It was more than enough. She still talks about that profound moment of prayer together.
Another memorable anointing service took place in a hospital room in Chicago about seven years ago. I had been visiting a man, a quadriplegic, for several weeks. He asked if I would come by every day and read him the story of Joseph from the Bible. So I would come by and read to him about 10 minutes a day, which is about all he could handle. This man was often trembling from the pain that he was experiencing. I didn’t make the connection until later, but the patient’s name was also Joseph. The other thing that I didn’t realize until later is that this man, like the story of Joseph in the Bible, had felt deserted by his brothers. He told me that he was involved in a gang with some of his actual blood brothers. During a fight, he was shot and instead of helping him to get the care he needed, his brothers left him on the streets where Joseph could have easily bled to death. He was found and given care but had he received care earlier, his legs might have been spared.
It was no wonder to me that Joseph wanted me to read this story to him; he knew what it was like to be deserted by family and to find his own way in a foreign world of medicine, injury and pain.
After we finished the story of Joseph in the Bible, we talked about things like forgiveness and healing and reconciliation. He admitted that he was still full of rage. One day he wondered if an anger demon had possessed him. Would I do an exorcism he wondered? I told him that in my tradition, I was more accustomed to anointing services. Anything, he said….”I want to be healed.” By this point I felt a little over my head and so I called in one of the elders of of the religion department, a Roman Catholic priest, who I knew would handle this situation with grace and skill.
The priest ever so gently invited Joseph to try and visualize a place of safety. “Where,” he asked Joseph, “do you feel the most free and safe?” Joseph said, “my wheelchair.” And so the priest had him visualize himself back in his chair, and then he said this simple prayer:
Peace be upon you, Joseph. Peace be upon this room. Peace be upon your life. Peace be upon your brothers. Peace be upon all who suffer violence. And after each petition, he anointed Joseph with oil, making the sign of the cross on his forehead.
For the first time in several weeks, Joseph stopped trembling. His sorrow and anger, for a time, was not his alone. We were sharing it. We were participating in it and focusing God’s radiant light on it.
Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. James 5:14-16