What are “Last Rites?”

Last RitesSunday evening I received a call from the Riverside Walter Reed Chaplain. There was a Roman Catholic man there dying, wishing to receive Last Rites. I was available and able to visit with a family I’d never met, and may not see again.

I’ve received similar calls in the past, people wishing to see a priest either due to their illness, or imminent death. Answering these calls is not morbid. In answering the call, I am able to share God’s mercy and love to people in dire need, and I am greatly appreciative to our Lord for first calling me to this office.

You may ask, “Well, Father Kevin, isn’t ‘Last Rites’ a Roman Catholic ritual? Why are you, an Anglican Priest, doing giving Last Rites? More importantly, why do that at all? Where are Last Rites in the Bible?” I hear your questions frequently, and I’d venture a guess that some of you may have those, and other questions for me, if you knew I was performing Last Rites for people outside our Church.

Last Rites are nothing more that the three Sacraments of the Church that are appropriate for a person approaching death. These are first Confession and Absolution, second Holy Unction, and finally Viaticum (From Latin, “Provision for the journey.”) or Holy Communion.

The Sacrament of Confession and Absolution are based on the Scripture John 20:19-22. Jesus said, to the Apostles;

Then the same day at evening, being the first [day] of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace [be] unto you. And when he had so said, he shewed unto them [his] hands and his side. Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the Lord. Then said Jesus to them again, Peace [be] unto you: as [my] Father hath sent me, even so send I you. And when he had said this, he breathed on [them], and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost: Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; [and] whose soever [sins] ye retain, they are retained.

God wishes reconciliation with us, that is why Jesus, the Word of God, was sent into the world. God became a part of His own creation and became a sacrifice for our sin on the cross (For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life Jn 3:16). The word of the priest does not supplant the work of Christ on the Cross, rather the pronunciation of God’s forgiveness (It is God who forgives sins and not man) to the penitent is a reminder of God’s grace and the forgiveness of sins. I can only imagine the comfort that a person waiting on death feels when they know that our Lord Jesus loves them, wants to be with them forever, and forgives them of whatever may have separated them in the past.

St. James Parishioners will recognize the second Rite, that is Holy Unction. We just finished a study of James Epistle and you may remember the scripture, “Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord (Jas 5:14).” The sick are prayed over and anointed with oil by the priest using the prayers found on page 320 of the Prayer Book.

Finally, Holy Eucharist, the Body and Blood of our Lord are administered to the dying to give them food for their journey from this life into the next. Our Lord Jesus said,

I am that bread of life. Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which cometh down from heaven, that a man may eat thereof, and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world… Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. Jn 6:48-50 & 54

In confessing sin, believing, and receiving Jesus, the dying (which we all are, just at different rates, and at differing times) receive eternal life.

I could tell that the couple, indeed, the family I met Sunday, followed in God’s grace for years. The husband and wife were married for nearly six decades, and they still shared kind affection one for another. The life of Christ enlivened their marriage, just as assuredly as it livens those who follow Jesus after their bodily death.

Jesus wants us every day, for eternity, and not just on our last days in this life. The Sacraments of Confession and Absolution, Holy Unction, and our Lord’s Supper are available to us now, and any day, so that we may receive God’s forgiveness, healing, and life. We need not confess to a priest to receive forgiveness, or be anointed with oil in order to be healed. We do receive in those Sacraments, however, the grace and reassurance that God does indeed forgive sins and provide healing. I invite you to participate in the life of the Body of Christ, not just so that you may receive the benefits of this participation (which includes eternal life), but so that you may also work to build God’s Kingdom, beginning in this life. Kevin+