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Christ Means
Christ Means "Anointed"

The Sacrament of Anointing

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Christ Means “Anointed”

The Sacrament of Anointing
Tuesday, April 9, 2019

The human need for physical, embodied practices seems universal. Across Christian history, the “Sacraments,” as Orthodox and Catholics call them, have always been with us. Before the age of literacy started to spread in Europe in the sixteenth century, things like pilgrimage, prayer beads, body prostrations, bows and genuflections, “blessing oneself” with the sign of the cross, statues, sprinkling things with holy water, theatrical plays and liturgies, incense and candles all allowed the soul to know itself through the outer world—which we are daring to call “Christ.” These outer images serve as mirrors of the Absolute, which can often bypass the mind. Anything is a sacrament if it serves as a Shortcut to the Infinite, hidden in something that is very finite.

In 1969, I was sent as a deacon to work at Acoma Pueblo, a Native American community in western New Mexico. When I got there, I was amazed to discover that many Catholic practices had direct Indigenous counterparts. I saw altars in the middle of the mesas covered with bundles of prayer sticks. I noted how the people of Acoma Pueblo sprinkled corn pollen at funerals just as priests did holy water, how what we were newly calling “liturgical dance” was the norm for them on every feast day. I observed how mothers would show their children to silently wave the morning sunshine toward their faces, just as we learn to “bless ourselves” with the sign of the cross, and how anointing people with smoldering sage was similar to waving incense at our Catholic High Masses.

All these practices have one thing in common: they are acted out, mimed, embodied expressions of spirit. The soul remembers them at an almost preconscious level because they are lodged in our muscle memory and make a visual impact. The later forms of more rational Protestantism had a hard time understanding this.

My colleague and Episcopal priest Cynthia Bourgeault writes about this in her book The Meaning of Mary Magdalene:

Today, within the mainstream of Christian sacramental practice we have indeed forgotten much of what our wisdom forebears once knew. Most Christians are still familiar with anointing only in its most stark and literal form, as the sacrament of “extreme unction,” administered shortly before physical death. While the ceremonial use of anointing for healing is on the increase (and this is a positive trend), even within these healing circles most people are unaware of the tightly interwoven threads that connect this action, through Mary Magdalene, to redemptive love and rebirth into fullness of being. They would be astonished to discover that anointing has not only something but everything to do with bridal mysticism and that it is not physical death but “dying before you die” that is its primary field of reference. To reclaim anointing in its original context would make it the sacramental centerpiece of a whole new vision of Christianity based on spiritual transformation and the alchemy of love. [1]

For the remainder of this week, Cynthia will help us rediscover the potent ritual of anointing through Mary Magdalene’s story.

[1] Cynthia Bourgeault, The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity (Shambhala: 2010), 187.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe (Convergent: 2019), 223.

Image credit: Mary Magdalene’s Box of Very Precious Ointment (detail), James Tissot, 1886-1994, Brooklyn Museum, New York City, New York.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: If we are fully to avail ourselves of Mary Magdalene’s wisdom presence today, it will be, I believe, primarily through recovering a wisdom relationship with the ritual of anointing—that is, coming to understand it . . . as an act of conscious love marking the passageway into both physical and spiritual wholeness. —Cynthia Bourgeault
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