Born and raised in The United Church of Canada I must confess to some discomfort with a ministry of healing. Yes Jesus healed the ill, the broken and those possessed by demonic spirits. And, yes, surely the Risen Christ heals still. But even many years after ordination I still did not know how to embody this healing ministry with integrity in the worshipping life of the congregation. Then I was fortunate to be a guest at a Lutheran pastors' retreat that included participation in a liturgical rite of healing. It was a powerful and moving experience. When I described it to the worship committee at University Hill Congregation there was obvious interest but also general agreement that the congregation was not ready for a similar rite in its life.
However, one member of the committee mentioned the healing rite again a few months later and then again a few months later still. She said she kept thinking about what I had described and found herself longing for something like it. She thought that others in the congregation would also want the opportunity to participate in a similar rite of healing. So the committee decided we would try it. The grateful response of the congregation made us wonder why we had waited so long.
That was five years ago. Now the rite of healing has become a part of our life together - a living tradition. We offer it twice a year: on the Sunday closest to All Saints Day and on the fourth Sunday in Lent. On both occasions the rite takes place within the celebration of the sacrament of communion. Here are the words that we print in the order of service as an introduction to the rite of healing:
“During the celebration of the sacrament of communion this morning those who wish to receive a prayer for healing and to be anointed with oil may - after receiving the elements - move to a station behind the table (choosing to kneel, sit or stand). Here all who know the need for God’s healing in any aspect of their lives may join in prayer for one another. Here each one may also receive a physical gesture of healing: the laying on of hands accompanied by anointing with oil. These signs, first given in baptism, tell us again that we are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked forever with the cross of Christ, who is health and salvation for the whole world. In its ministry of healing, the church does not replace the gifts of God that come through the scientific community. Rather, the church offers and celebrates gifts such as these: God’s presence with strength and comfort in time of suffering, God’s promise of wholeness and peace, and God’s love embodied in the community of faith.”
Over the years the number of congregants that form at each of three stations has increased as we have become increasingly comfortable with revealing our need for healing by stepping forward for an anointing and blessing. Some whisper a specific concern to the elder who is offering the anointing so that special prayer can be quietly offered. Many say nothing, simply receiving the laying on of hands and the anointing with oil as they are given the blessing: “In the name of our Saviour Jesus Christ, be strengthened and filled with God’s grace, that you may know the healing power of the Spirit. Amen.”
As a pastor I find that this simple but powerful practice is increasing our capacity to speak about the sickness of our individual souls and of our collective soul as a people. The rite of healing is an embodiment of the church’s faith in the power of God in Jesus Christ to cure wounded, lonely, tired souls. Even our own.