Monday, March 5, 2012

Health, Hippolytus, and Holy Oil
(or why I carry an oil stock in my pocket)

The proverbial "they" warned me that I wouldn't have the foggiest idea of what it means to be a priest for at least five years after ordination.  Having passed that milestone a while ago, I believe "they" were wildly optimistic.  And of course they were right in what they were really saying: that time will teach you how the truth of this God, the truth of these people, and the truth of God at work in you for these people intersect in ways that are up-building, humorous, glorifying to God, and true.

One of the things I have learned is that for me to be a priest is always to carry an oil stock in my pocket.  I do this in part because holy unction is the sacramental rite I administer with the most regularity, period.  It's not even close.  I also do this to remind myself that when I'm not administering the sacramental rite I am nevertheless never in the presence of someone not in need of healing, even - indeed, especially - when I'm alone.  This doesn't mean I am always anointing, of course, but I am always reminding myself of the truth about each of us.  Each of us has a story, carries a burden, and has some version of yearning - met or unmet - for the divine touch of the One who came as our Great Physician.  Indeed, one of the images that came to frame my early discernment during college, with my church family at St Barnabas, was the image of the Spirit poured out as holy, healing, drenching oil on the whole of the earth: all that is, was, and will be, dripping with the salve, the ointment, of God.

The other day, while looking up the origins of an unrelated prayer, I came across this earliest form of oil blessing from the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus:

Sanctify this oil, O God, with which you anointed kings, priests, and prophets, you that would grant health to those who use it and partake of it, so that it may bestow comfort on all who taste it and health on all who use it. (1)

" that would grant health..."

Holy unction typically finds itself reserved for the critically - or at least obviously - sick.  But salve - salvation - is for us all.  And who can forget our Savior's marginally sarcastic words: "I didn't come for the well, but for the sick."  So John writes, "If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us."  The Church cannot take for granted that health means more than the work of pastoral care for the critically or obviously ill; health must be at the heart of our ministry and mission; in a real sense, health names our participation in the work of God for the world.  

Indeed, we have good reason to believe that because health is central to the mission of God, the priority of health to our ecclesial visions is likewise essential.  So the Bishop of Southwestern Virginia, for example, goes so far as to state in his website biopic that "My vision for the diocese is that we have healthy and wholesome clergy and lay leaders so that we may carry out the promises we make at baptism and serve the world in the name of the risen Christ." 

What I find so striking about the bishop's vision is that he sees health as the necessary contribution of his office to best promote the work of the whole Church for the Kingdom of God.  Techniques, targets, even passions for others, require health as their basic foundation.  

If this post comes across a little Captain Obvious, forgive me.  It's only been five years.  Yet, especially if it comes across so, help me out: generally speaking, churches are not known as places of vibrant health.  How can be better embody what we think we already know?

Churches are places, say Peter Steinke and others, in which the least mature often dictate the pace and purposes of the pack.  Abuses by clergy and lay alike are frequently swept aside or tolerated in the name of Christian kindness.  Churches are not alone in this, of course.  As Rabbi Friedman once wrote, even Jewish congregations tolerate destructive behavior because to confront it would not be "Christian."
Let me hear from you: truly, how can we better embody the priority of health in the lives of our members, ourselves, as the community of faith?

Tomorrow, I want to reflect on the recently departed co-founder of Broken Windows, James Wilson, and ask if his theory has health-promoting insights for the Church.

(1) In Hatchett's Commentary on the American Prayer Book, page 463.

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