Question: Anointing the sick has gained in popularity. In my church it is offered in the Sunday Worship service and many people come forward for the laying on of hands and to be anointed. I usually ask the person what they desire to be prayed for. Increasingly people are coming to be anointed for someone else. I question whether this is appropriate. What do you think about being anointed for someone else?
Frank answers: This is a timely question because many churches will observe St. Luke’s Day this Sunday (October 18). Because St. Luke the Evangelist was a physician (Colossians 4:14) (the Gospel of St. Luke and its sequel the Acts of the Apostles are studded with healing stories), it has been a day on which to lift up the Church’s ministry of healing and to make the laying on of hands and anointing of the sick available in a public way. Some pastors use this as an opportunity to teach about anointing of the sick and to offer it to those who are hospitalized and receiving treatment for serious illnesses. I did this in my congregation. I also received the laying on of hands and anointing, along with confession and absolution, before surgery for colon cancer.
The Ministry of Healing
The elements of the Church’s ministry of healing are laid out in the Letter of James 5:13-16. The elders (presbyters) pray over and anoint the sick in the name of the Lord, hear a confession of sins and grant forgiveness (absolution). To this was added already by ca. 150 A.D. communion of the sick from the sacramental elements consecrated at the Sunday Eucharist (see Justin Martyr, Apology, chapter 67).
To the question about whether anointing can be received for someone else, I think the answer is NO. Sacraments and sacramentals are performed on the body and must be received in faith. You can’t be baptized for someone else. You can’t receive communion for someone else. You can’t be forgiven for someone else. You can’t be anointed for someone else.
The pastor or priest should be willing to visit someone whose illness precludes them from attending a public service. The laying on hands with prayer and anointing the body with oil before someone goes into the hospital for a medical procedure is the best approach because once someone is in the hospital the medical staff flies into activity. An evening visit before someone goes into the hospital in the morning allows a time to use the means of grace in an unhurried way and to assure the person facing a medical assurance that he or she is in God’s hands as well as the hands of the medical professionals.
I’ve also had the experience you report. When the ministry of healing is offered publicly, some people come forward just to “sample” it or to be “comforted” by the laying on of hands and the anointing. Some congregants think that they should be a part of everything that is offered in a public service. Others find great consolation in this ministry for reasons of mental health or to heal relationships. They want applied to themselves in ordinary circumstances what is really an extraordinary ministry. In some cases what they really need is pastoral counseling or confession and absolution. (Absolution, at least in Lutheran practice, also includes the laying on of hands.) Conditions must be treated with the right remedies.
I think those who are not sick yet desire (and may need) a ministry with touch and anointing should seek out massage therapy. I’m serious. Massage also includes the laying on of hands and the application of oil for the purposes of promoting healthy bodies and healthy minds. Massage and various forms of body work are all about touch and healing (see below).
Massage is an ancient practice, attested in many of the world’s oldest civilizations. Chinese records dating back 3,000 years document its use; the ancient Hindus, Persians and Egyptians (see the image below) applied forms of massage for many ailments; and Hippocrates wrote papers recommending the use of rubbing and friction for joint and circulatory problems.
The Mayo Clinic states on its website that
Massage is generally considered part of complementary and alternative medicine. It’s increasingly being offered along with standard treatment for a wide range of medical conditions and situations.
“Studies of the benefits of massage demonstrate that it is an effective treatment for reducing stress, pain and muscle tension.
“While more research is needed to confirm the benefits of massage, some studies have found massage may also be helpful for:
- Digestive disorders
- Insomnia related to stress
- Myofascial pain syndrome
- Paresthesias and nerve pain
- Soft tissue strains or injuries
- Sports injuries
- Temporomandibular joint pain”
Massage also addresses the mind. The pioneering body worker Deane Juhan, author of the classic massage textbook Job’s Body, writes in an online article on “Reaching the Brain Through Touch,”
The skin is the surface of the brain; to touch the surface is to stir the depths. I cannot touch an organism’s skin anywhere without arousing that organism’s entirety. That is to say, the skin on one hand is a primary boundary of our physical selves, and on the other hand a primary threshold of interactions that connect our inner world with the world around us in many ways.”
The nervous system runs throughout the body. Stimulated by massage of the skin and tissues the nervous system sends impulses to the brain. Our limbic system in the brain is associated with our feeling states. Stirred by neuropeptides, our biochemical messengers, the limbic system modulates our consciously perceived emotions and translates cellular responses throughout our body, orchestrating innumerable reactions to our current feeling states.
“Mind” is located throughout the body, not just in the brain, and the mind holds “memory”. We speak, for example, of muscular motor memory. Neuroscience is discovering ways in which healing touch can mobilize the body’s wisdom and renewing resources on many levels. On this basis psychotherapies are being developed that make use of bodily manipulation (like those used in Thai yoga massage) to jar the memory, trigger emotional responses, and serve as the basis for guided discussion. Phoenix Rising, for example, is a yoga-based, Rogerian-style talk therapy that encourages the client to respond to feelings as the body is moved into supported positions by the therapist.
Thai yoga massage
Massage has always been regarded as a therapeutic practice. Interestingly, the person most associated with the development of modern massage therapy (Swedish massage) was a Swedish Lutheran theologian and health practitioner named Pehr-Henrik Ling (1766-1839).
Ling’s father was a priest in the Church of Sweden and Ling himself received a degree in theology from Lund University in 1799. Of poor health, he traveled abroad and studied languages at the University of Copenhagen. In Copenhagen he met a Chinese martial artist and expert in Tui na, a Chinese hands-on-body treatment, named Ming. Ming and Ling became fencing and exercise partners in Copenhagen and remained friends throughout Ling’s life. When he returned to Sweden he was appointed fencing master at Lund University. He claimed that the movements of the body had contributed to his own health. He continued to study anatomy and physiology and went through the entire medical curriculum at the university, although without taking a degree. In 1813 he founded and was appointed principal of the Royal Gymnastic Institute Center in Stockholm that trained gymnastic teachers. He is rightly regarded as the father of Swedish gymnastics, but while he promoted the development of massage therapy at the Institute he is not really the father of Swedish massage. That distinction goes to the Dutch physician Johann Georg Mezger. Mezger named this massage therapy “Swedish” in honor of Ling. Ling’s work was promoted by his students after his death. It’s too bad he didn’t leave a larger body of writings with reflections on his work on the body.
Swedish massage involves soft, long, kneading strokes, as well as light, rhythmic, tapping strokes, on topmost layers of muscles, combined with movement of the joints. By relieving muscle tension, Swedish massage therapy can be both relaxing and energizing and it may help after an injury. For really tense or painful “trouble spots” in the body the massage therapist may give a deep tissue massage, using deliberate strokes that focus pressure on layers of muscles, tendons, or other tissues deep under the skin. Deep tissue massage can be quite therapeutic — relieving chronic patterns of tension and helping with muscle injuries, such as back sprain.
In addition to its physical and mental health benefits, some people enjoy massage because it often involves caring, comfort, and a sense of empowerment. It can create deep connections with one’s massage therapist. Obviously professional/client boundaries need to be observed, but there’s a value to continuing a relationship with a massage therapist who becomes intimately acquainted with your body. Anything that is said within the walls of a massage treatment room, is kept confidential between the client and therapist.
In the 2005 award winning Philippine film, Masahista (The Masseur), written and directed by Brillante Mendoza, a young a masseur working in a massage parlor in Manila, played by Coco Martin, struggles to make sense of his unfulfilling relationships in conversations during massages with one of his clients , who has his own issues, while he is simultaneously assisting his mother in preparing his father for burial. The film cuts back and forth between Coco Martin’s character lovingly preparing his father’s body for burial and bringing healing to the body of his massage client, and receiving healing for himself in the process.
A Personal Testimony
I began receiving regular massages after an accident required physical therapy and that physical therapy went as far as it could. I was also a cancer survivor and massage along with yoga helped me to become more attuned to my body than I ever had been before. One of my most memorable massage experiences occurred in Singapore just after I had retired from forty years of active pastoral ministry and 23 years of serving Immanuel Lutheran Church in Evanston.
My body was full of tension when I arrived in Singapore. I had gone through the process of saying my goodbyes and moving my office from the church to my home while also preparing material for workshops, public lectures, and a seminary course I was to teach in Singapore. I had a long flight from Chicago and a few days after my arrival I sought out an Asian men’s spa. (Singapore is noted for shopping, dining, and massage.) I was greeted by a young Asian masseur who removed my shoes, brought me a fruit drink, and showed me the massage menu. I chose a fusion acupressure and oil massage that I thought would both work out kinks and provide relaxation. He led me to a curtained cubicle and, after I undressed, to a shower. He did a great job on both parts of the massage. I was amazed that his hands and arms (sometimes assisted with his knees when he was on top of me) could be so strong in applying pressure and then be so gentle in applying and rubbing in the oil. I was draped for the acupressure part of the massage because oil was not used, but then I was undraped for oil aroma therapy. I was completely naked and the masseur only wore his briefs. I was used to this from getting a body scrub at the Korean spa near my home. But I was totally unprepared for what the masseur did at the end of the massage. He said, “You need to relax.” With that he laid his naked torso over mine in a kind of profound embrace that lasted what seemed like several minutes. Of course, I immediately tensed up, but as he lay still on top of me I did relax and I found his embrace deeply peaceful. Afterwards he led me back to the shower and when I returned he had prepared a tray of green tea which we sipped while sitting on the massage table.
This massage made a profound impression on me. On later reflection I thought about its initiatory qualities. I was welcomed with gracious hospitality. I went through the “ordeal” of the acupressure massage (it was strong!). Then my covering was removed for the anointing with oil. There was the embrace of his hug as a kind of blessing by the imposition of his body rather than his hands. Then I was led to the water, and this was followed by the “communion” of the tea and his company. I regarded it as a rite of initiation into my retirement which was, in fact, officially beginning in those days, leading to a new birth. I felt prepared to do in Singapore exactly what I hoped I might be doing in my retirement ministry.
I have since come to see an initiatory quality in all massage: it provides a transformation from a hurting body to a renewed body. This renewal comes through touch. Massage is all about touch. Massage therapists touch the body all over. They know that the stimulation of the skin through touch is as necessary to us as water, food, or oxygen. Without adequate stimulation of our skins through touch we will languish. Infants sufficiently deprived of touch perish, regardless of being fed and sheltered. We need to be touched—also by God. Maybe this is why the laying on of hands and anointing of the sick has become so popular.
Touch is the first of the senses to develop in babies. It enables us to have a relationship beyond our own periphery. Becoming a healthy human being requires the loving touch of parents, and development may be inhibited when touch is denied. The need for touch continues throughout our lives.
How many people lack regular, touching relationships in their lives? We go to licensed massage therapists for therapeutic massages. But massage is also something that couples can learn to give to each other. This form of touch not only relieves stress; it affirms a loving relationship.
Oils have also been used for their medicinal properties. In Greek and Roman societies the body was generously oiled in the public baths with rubdowns after exercise. Both the bath and the rub down with oil may have been a model for baptizing and anointing of candidates for initiation in the ancient church.
The ancient Indian Ayurvedic medical practice of abhyanga makes use of different oils, usually heated, for different purposes and according to the seasons of the year. Although the sanskrit word abhyangam means “massage,” abhyanga is not a massage in the usual understanding. It is an application of herbal oils vigorously rubbed into the skin of the whole body from head to toe, following “marma points” or the junctures of energy flow in the body. Ayurvedic practitioners claim that abhyanga increases the production of blood corpuscles and antibodies which protect the body from viruses and illnesses, vitalizes the body, retards the process of aging and brings vitality, and has other benefits.
This is synchronous abhyanga performed in Kerala province, India. It is sometimes done with four hands to represent the four arms of the goddess of healing. It is recommended to sit in a herbal sauna for about10 minutes after the massage treatment to help the oils soak into the skin.
Abhyanga is a ritual process of anointing that goes back thousands of years. Oil is applied to the whole body. The Christian rite of anointing the sick in the early Middle Ages, before the ancient Christian ministry of healing became the sacrament of extreme unction (the last anointing in preparation for death), called for anointing with the sign of the cross the five sense organs, the neck, the throat, the region between the shoulders, the breast, and parts of the body which were painful—as many as fifteen different places. In other words, much of the body was anointed. Today the anointing is restricted to the forehead and/or the hands. (The images above and within this article shows the priest anointing the hands of the sick person.) As sacramental practice has preferred more water in bigger fonts for Holy Baptism, whole loaves of bread and larger chalices of wine for Holy Communion, perhaps we also need to consider more application of oil in the Anointing of the Sick. These sacramental rites are signs of the wholeness of the coming kingdom of God. They need to witness to fullness of life under God’s reign, not to paucity.
Pastor Frank Senn