April 24, 2021 - Pastor Message05/18/2021
THE YEAR OF ST. JOSEPH PATRON SAINT OF A HAPPY DEATH (conclusion)
“Are there people sick among you? Let them send for the priests of the Church, and let the priests pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick persons, and the Lord will raise them up. If they have committed any sins, their sins will be forgiven them” (James 5:14-15).
While we do not really know when or how St. Joseph died, an ancient tradition holds that he died peacefully in his bed with Jesus and Mary at his side. Joseph’s faith in the salvation Jesus would accomplish, as well as the presence of Jesus himself, shepherding Joseph through the dark passage of death, are what made Joseph’s death a happy one and why he is recognized as the patron saint of a happy death.
The Church continues to make Jesus present at the bedside of the sick and dying today through the sacrament of the anointing of the sick. Jesus always showed special care and compassion toward the sick, and, next to preaching, healing the sick formed the most prominent part of his public ministry. His healings served as signs of the coming of God’s kingdom, which Jesus himself inaugurated, a kingdom of life, not death; of wholeness, not infirmity; of communion with each other, not the isolation of illness.
We do not have any evidence that Jesus anointed the sick as part of his healings, though there are examples of physical signs accompanying his healings, such as the laying on of hands, spitting and making mud, washing, and even touching the hem of his cloak. Before he ascended back to the Father, Jesus commissioned the apostles to continue his healing ministry as a sign of God’s kingdom in our midst: “As you go, make this announcement, ‘The reign of God is at hand!’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, heal the leprous, expel demons. The gift you have received, give as a gift” (Matthew 10:7-8).
Very early, within the generation of the apostles, the Church had developed a special ritual to continue Jesus’ healing ministry. As described in the letter of James above, they merged the ancient medical practice of anointing the sick with oil with the prayer of the priests, representing both Jesus and his Body, the faith community. We see in this passage too that very early on the Church had come to understand the effects of this ritual, which we still believe today, namely healing of body and soul, including the forgiveness of sins. There is a sense too in the anointing of the sick of the ancient practice of preparing the bodies of the dead for burial by anointing them with oil as a preservative, with the spiritual effect being preserving the person for eternal life.
In time, the healing and strengthening effects of the sacrament began to recede in importance in people’s spiritual lives, and they began to focus almost exclusively on the forgiveness of sins and preparation for eternal life for those who were dying. This led to reidentifying the sacrament as “Extreme Unction” and to widespread neglect of the sacrament until the point of death. Following the reforms of the Second Vatican Council of the 1960’s, the Church has worked in recent decades to recover the much-needed, much fuller, original meaning of the sacrament. Nevertheless, it still retains a special place as a sacrament particularly beneficial for the dying. Through the anointing of the sick, the dying are assured of Jesus’ presence with them, like he was with Joseph, in the ultimate moment of life. Through the ministry of the priest, who also represents the support of the faith community, Jesus strengthens their faith in the salvation he has won and wishes to share with them and gives them hope as they face their personal judgment, knowing their sins are forgiven. Please remember the importance of this sacrament as you or a loved one approach death and contact me to come and celebrate the sacrament with you or your loved one. It can be of great spiritual value and can help us, like Joseph, approach death with peace and even happiness. St. Joseph, patron of a happy death, pray for us.
Fr. Marc Stockton