The other day I celebrated my 82nd birthday. To me that did not seem all that old. After all, just a matter of months ago I was in my 70’s, but when I mentioned to a friend that I was 82, the person blurted out to me, “You are not only 82 but you are eight years from 90!” I double-checked and the math seemed to be correct. Wow!
When you are in your 80’s, first one and then another of your friends gets a little ahead of you and goes on to God. I have experienced this a great deal of late and I must admit that it makes for calm, thoughtful thinking about God, our lives and how we have lived them.
This got me to start thinking about the Last Rites of the Catholic Church, the meaning and beauty in which they are celebrated in ideal circumstances. I have ministered the Sacrament of the Last Anointing in various circumstances sometimes in rather rushed or awkward manner as on the site of an automobile accident or an explosion. But let’s look at it in terms of the ordinary celebration of Extreme Unction. The person approaching death is laid out in bed in comfort and dignity surrounded by members of the family, sometimes children and grandchildren, sometimes siblings, sometimes the spouse. Beside the bed, there is a freestanding crucifix surrounded by two burning candles and the priest has brought in a container for holy oil, a small locket containing the sacred host, the Blessed Sacrament, the presence in our home of Jesus of Nazareth.
The priest is not just an individual. He represents the Universal Church and he also represents the local Church into which this dying person has been living. As the priest prays over the person, he is thanking God for this person’s presence in the community of faith over the years. He was baptized, made his First Communion, most likely married and worked hard, raised a family and now the end is in sight. Spiritually, the priest and the community from which he has come lift that person up towards God and presents him and his whole life as a gift to God. We ask God to accept this person’s life, reward him for his goodness and receive him into eternal life.