Last night two dozen friends gathered in the small chapel of my church to participate in the sacrament of the anointing of the sick. I had selected the readings for it based on my desire to make this illness a communal event. I think sometimes that society prefers to keep sickness hidden away and suffering at bay. A couple of times I have second guessed my decision to make this so public but not last night.
I had somewhat heeded to the pastor’s wisdom of keeping it small. We gathered with some words of welcome and then began the ceremony with the Taize chant Ubi Caritas–where there is charity and love, there is God. The song is connected to Holy Week, I discovered, as part of the foot washing. This celebration was a way of washing one another’s feet. The love received and given has carried me since this journey began and I have not doubted that God is ever present. The song united those who could not make it, those who did not even know about the event, those far and near. This amazing gift of friendship and love that Christ shared with his disciples was present last night too.
The Gospel reading from Luke 5:18-27 tells the story of friends who go to extraordinary measures to ensure that Jesus heals their sick loved one. They cannot get into the house, so they literally go through it. They lower the man through the roof and bring him to rest on his mat, directly in front of Jesus. This was the reading from my bible study this summer at Taize while on my pilgrimage. The point the facilitator, a Canadian brother, mentioned is that we are all paralyzed in some ways and he invited us to consider what fear or obstacle left us unable to move forward. I know that many of my friends gathered could let my illness paralyze them but they are instead picking up their mats collectively with me and we are gathering our courage as community. Last night was a beautiful demonstration of us doing so.
The First Reading from 1 Corinthians 12 expresses that the body cannot be compartmentalized. The eye, the ear, the foot all belong to one body. The body does not function as well if one part is injured or cut off. The humble parts of the body find special honour. The weaker parts are indispensable. If one part suffers, the whole suffers. If one part rejoices, then the whole rejoices. As I began to tell people that I was sick, I knew that the burden was not my alone. As a whole, people have committed to join in this journey. As much as I do not think I am indispensable, many have staunchly admitted I am not going anywhere because I still have much work to do yet, that my gifts are needed, and that there are still too many adventures for me to live out. Last night gave us a reason to rejoice together, blessed by an encouraging and healing sacrament, upheld in a community connected through the Holy Spirit.
At the invitation of the pastor, friends came forward to lay their hands upon me. My task was to receive it all. Like that paralyzed man in the Gospel who could only allow his friends to bring him before the Christ, I let each person do the same. I closed my eyes and received each silent prayer. I let the power of each petition course through my body and spirit. Hands firm, touch gentle, persistent pressure, brief balm, lengthy longings, and whispered peace were all gratefully accepted. Each precious gift filled me with grace and peace.
At the end of it, though it was only I anointed with the Holy Oil, the participants all glowed. The last line of the Gospel perhaps sums it up: Everyone was amazed and gave praise to God. They were filled with awe and said, “We have seen remarkable things today. The community had felt the power of the sacrament, and as I had hoped, found grace for themselves as they continue to walk with me. Such a remarkable grace indeed.