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From Dom Guéranger's The Liturgical Year.

℣. In resurrectione tua, Christe, alleluia.
℟. Cœli et terra lætentur, alleluia.

℣. In thy resurrection, O Christ, alleluia.
℟. Let heaven and earth rejoice, alleluia.


BY the first four sacraments, our Saviour provided for the several spiritual necessities of man during this mortal life. Baptism gives him spiritual birth, Confirmation arms him for the battle, the Eucharist is his food, Penance is his cure. But the last moment of life—that most important and terrible of all, on which depends eternity—does it not seem to require a special sacramental aid? Could it be that our Redeemer, after so lovingly supplying us with a sacrament to meet our other wants, would leave us unprovided when we are dying, that is, when we are passing from this to another life, and are weighed down with bodily and mental sufferings? No: he has provided a sacrament for the dying; the grace of redemption puts on a new form, that it may visit and fortify us in our last struggle.

Even before his Passion, he gave us some idea of the sacrament he intended to institute for the help of the dying. When he sent his disciples before him, that they might prepare the people for his preaching, he commanded them to anoint the sick with oil: they did so, and the result was the cure of them that were thus anointed.[1] But after his Resurrection, when our Redeemer was preparing the dowry of his Church, he gave her a sacrament wherewith this Mother was to administer special grace and consolation to her children when in danger of death.

Oil is the symbol of strength; hence, the wrestlers of old used it as a means for acquiring activity and nerve. Our Saviour chose it as the matter of the sacrament of confirmation, whereby our souls, after being regenerated by baptism, are strengthened for their future combats. The hour of death is a combat, but one so terrible that it stands apart by itself. It is then that Satan, seeing how the long-coveted prey is soon to be beyond his reach, redoubles his efforts to make it his own for ever. The dying Christian, standing as he does on the brink of eternity, is exposed to two temptations: presumption and despair. In a few moments he will be before the Judge, whose sentence is irrevocable. The remnants of sin are still upon him, and clog his soul. How will he comport himself in that last combat, on which depends the final success of all the previous ones of his life? Is not this an occasion for a special sacrament, whereby our Jesus may provide his combatant with the help so urgently needed? Yes; and here again it is oil. The first anointing was that of confirmation, and it gave strength; and the last, or as it is called, extreme unction, is equally rich in power: it is the last application made to mankind of the Redeemer’s blood,’which flows in such abundance with this holy oil.’[2]

Let us consider the effects of extreme unction, of which the Apostle St James speaks to us in his Epistle. What he there tells us, he had received from Jesus’ own lips. First of all, this sacrament brings forgiveness of sins;[3] forgiveness of those sins which the conscience, however diligent it may have been in its examination, had overlooked; but which, nevertheless, injure the soul: and forgiveness of those remnants of sin, which continue after the guilt of sin has been remitted; like wounds which, though cured, are not quite closed, and keep the patient weak. The holy oil anoints each of the senses; each has been the source of sin; each now receives its special purification. These doors, which up to this moment had been open to the world, are now closed; so that the soul can be all intent upon eternal things. Let the enemy come now, if he will; his attacks can do no harm. He expected to find his adversary the poor earthly-minded creature of old, on whom he had inflicted hundreds of wounds; but lo! he finds a soldier of Christ, vigorous and brave. It is extreme unction that has worked the change.

But the effects of this sacrament do not stop here. Though primarily instituted for imparting strength to the soul, yet it has the power of restoring health to the body too. We learn this from the Apostle St James. His words are these: Is any man sick among you? Let him bring in the priests of the Churchand let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith shall save the sick man, and the Lord shall raise him up.[4] The sacred formula, which accompanies each anointing in this sacrament, has therefore the power of restoring bodily health, at the same time that it drives away the remnants of sin, which is the chief cause of all man's miseries, whether of soul or body. Such is the interpretation put by the Church on the words of St James; and we have continual proofs that our divine Master has not forgotten the promise of twofold efficacy which he gave to this sacrament. Hence it is, that after having anointed the several senses of the sick person, the priest addresses God in earnest prayer, that he would restore strength of body to him or her whose soul has received the efficacy of the heavenly remedy. Nay, the Church looks upon the restoration to bodily health as so truly a sacramental effect of extreme unction, that she does not consider as miracles, properly so called, the cures produced by its administration.

Let us, then, offer to the conqueror of death the homage of our thanks for this fresh proof of his compassionate love. He would himself experience all our miseries, not excepting even death or the agony that precedes it. When on his Cross, and enduring every anguish, as though he were a poor dying sinner, and not the Saint of saints, he thought of our deaths, and mercifully blessed our last agony with an outpouring of his precious Blood. This was the origin of the beautiful sacrament of extreme unction, which he gave to his Church, after his Resurrection, and for which we offer him to-day our humble thanks.

The following hymn—composed by St Ambrose, and used during Paschal Time in the Church of Milan—celebrates with the Saint's characteristic vigour of style the thoroughness of the salvation wrought by the Death of Christ, as was made evident in the conversion of the Good Thief.

 

Hymn

Hic est dies verus Dei,
Sanctus sereno lumine,
Quo diluit sanguis sacer
Probrosa mundi crimina.

Fidem refundens perditis,
Cæcosque visu illuminans:
Quem non gravi solvet metu
Latronis absolutio?

Qui præmio mutans crucem,
Jesum brevi acquirit fide,
Justusque praevio gradu
Pervenit in regnum Dei.

Opus stupent et angeli,
Pænam videntes corporis,
Christoque adhaerentem reum
Vitam beatam carpere.

Mysterium mirabile,
Ut abluat mundi luem,
Peccata tollit omnium,
Camis vitia mundans caro.

Quid hoc potest sublimius,
Ut culpa quærat gratiam,
Metumque solvat charitas,
Reddatque mors vitam novam?

Hamum sibi mors devoret,
Suisque se nodis liget:
Moriatur vita omnium,
Resurgat ut vita omnium.

Cum mors per omnes transeat,
Omnes resurgunt mortui:
Consumpta mors ictu suo
Perisse se solam gemit.

Gloria tibi Domine,
Qui surrexisti a mortuis,
Cum Patre et Sancto Spiritu,
In sempiterna sæcula.

Amen.
This is indeed God's own day,
holy with its unclouded light,
whereon the sacred Blood washed away
the world’s infamous crimes.

It enkindles confidence in the hopeless;
it gives sight to the blind.
Oh! who would not cease to despair at the thought
of the pardon granted to the Thief?

His cross was changed into a crown;
he gained Jesus by a brief act of faith;
and, being justified, was the first
to enter into the kingdom of God.

The very angels are bewildered at the change:
they behold the criminal suffering bodily tortures,
yet united with Christ, and culling
the flower of life everlasting.

O wondrous mystery!
Jesus takes upon himself the sins of the world,
that he may cleanse it from its filth:
Flesh washes away the sins of flesh.

What more sublime than this?
—sin seeking for grace,
love expelling fear,
and death giving a new life.

Let death swallow the hook he throws out to others;
let him be caught in his own net!
Let him but die, who is the Life of all,
and all will rise to life.

All men pass through death,
and all the dead rise again to life:
death’s blow falls on himself,
and none die but he.

Glory be to thee, O Lord,
who didst rise again from the dead!
and to the Father, and to the Holy Ghost,
for everlasting ages.

Amen.

[1] St Mark vi 13.
[2] Bossuet, Oraison funebre de Madame Henriette.
[3] St James v 15.
[4] St James v 14, 15.