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A case of reverse contagion?

by
11 September 2020

Sheila Bridge reflects on the unexpected power of one of the lesser sacraments

Science History Images/Alamy

A dying man is anointed

A dying man is anointed

RECENTLY, I anointed someone with oil. It had been a very long time since I last did that. Naturally, I took appropriate precautions, but, as the person concerned was already in that fragile space somewhere between life and death, the risk to her of anything transmitted from me was infinitesimal compared with the risks that she already faced. I was, however, conscious that there was a risk that she might transmit something to me.

As I pressed the holding-cross into the palm of her hand, I prayed that the familiarity of its shape might make some deep connection with her, even in her minimally conscious state. As I anointed her with the oil, on her hand and on her forehead, I prayed that the aroma might trigger some sense of the presence so familiar to her from her long life of faith.

To be able to do such things is always a privilege, but, on this occasion, after such a long absence of close physical contact, it felt like both an overwhelming privilege and a responsibility — to do it in a way that was meaningful and yet safe.

The next morning, as I came to my regular Bible reading, I began by reflecting on how that act of anointing had made me feel vulnerable. So I was both grateful and moved that the reading set for the day was from Exodus 30.22-29: “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Take the following fine spices: 500 shekels of liquid myrrh, half as much (that is, 250 shekels) of fragrant cinnamon, 250 shekels of fragrant calamus, 500 shekels of cassia — all according to the sanctuary shekel — and a hin of olive oil. Make these into a sacred anointing oil, a fragrant blend, the work of a perfumer. It will be the sacred anointing oil.

“Then use it to anoint the tent of meeting, the ark of the covenant law, the table and all its articles, the lampstand and its accessories, the altar of incense, the altar of burnt offering and all its utensils, and the basin with its stand. You shall consecrate them so they will be most holy, and whatever touches them will be holy.’”

God first instructs Moses to create the anointing oil, and then tells him what to do with it: liberally to anoint every part of the “tent of meeting”, the place of God’s presence — the table, the basin, and all the utensils. In other words, every small and seemingly insignificant object that was related to this place of God’s presence was to be touched with this oil.

 

GIVEN the enormous process that we (ministers in particular) have all been through, learning how to keep our church buildings cleansed from contamination, and the huge awareness we all now have about how transmission can occur from each and every single surface that we touch, this phrase stopped me in my tracks: “whatever touches them will become holy.”

Imagine that! Here is “reverse contagion”. Instead of being made sick by touching a surface on which an unseen virus lies in wait for the careless or unsuspecting, imagine being made whole (hol-i-ness = wholeness) by simple contact with something that in itself is holy, and transmits that holiness with a straightforward generosity, and without judgement, for the worthiness of the recipient.

This is a vivid and visceral picture of God’s grace; an extraordinary picture of the transaction offered to us by God. Our fear exchanged for his hope, our contaminated thinking for his truth, our poisonous and destructive attitudes towards others and towards ourselves for his unconditional love and acceptance.

We come in our filthy rags, with our wounds, our weaknesses, and our worries — and to receive the grace of God is to be figuratively washed clean and dressed in white, in a robe that we do not deserve; to be made whole; to be put back on our feet again; to be given the love that we need; and to find in ourselves the capacity to give that love and forgiveness to others.

 

THE Bible has many images for this transaction: “A crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair” (Isaiah 61.3). We are made holy or whole not by our own effort, but simply because we have reached out for the presence of God.

Meditating on this passage completely reframed any lingering fears and concerns from the act of anointing my friend the day before. I do not have any “magical” belief in the power of the oil, but I do have a deep belief in the power of the One who provides us — as he provided Moses — with such a palpable picture of his grace and power to transform.

And I do have a deep-held belief in the power of prayers, whether or not they are reinforced by physical objects such as oil, or holding-crosses, or candles. These objects simply help us to pray in a way that engages more of our senses; they save us from an overly intellectual approach to the presence of God.

We come as frail and physical human beings, in frail and physical human bodies, and God — who himself took on a human body — continues to meet us through everyday physical objects: a wafer of bread, a sip of wine, a dribble of oil, and the pouring of water over our heads as we begin our life in Christ in baptism.

In this world, right now, where everyone fears being “contaminated” by physical contact, let us pause to picture how God intends reverse contagion for our good. I guess we might call this a vaccine.

 

The Revd Sheila Bridge is Vicar of St Peter and St John, Rugby.

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