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“For I was hungry and you gave me food.” Matt. 25:35

Pastoral rites and special services

What is a service of wholeness and healing?

The Directory for Worship reminds us that “Healing was an integral part of the ministry of Jesus which the church has been called to continue as one dimension of its concern for the wholeness of people. Through services for wholeness, the church enacts in worship its ministry as a healing community.

“Services for wholeness are to be authorized by the session, and shall be under the direction of the pastor. Such services may be observed as regularly scheduled services of worship, as occasional services, or as part of the Service for the Lord’s Day. (W-3.3506) These services should be open to all and not restricted to those desiring healing for themselves or for others of special concern to them. The services should be held in a place readily accessible to those who may be seeking healing. 

“The vital element of worship in the service for wholeness is prayer since this is essentially a time of waiting in faith upon God. Thanksgiving for God’s promise of wholeness, intercessions and supplications should be offered. Adequate time for silent prayer should be provided, as well as occasions for prayers spoken and sung. Enacted prayer in the form of the laying on of hands and anointing with oil is appropriate. (James. 5:14.) The enactment of prayers involves the presiding minister of Word and Sacrament together with representatives of the believing community.

“These prayers are a response to the Word read and proclaimed. Particular focus should be on announcing the gospel’s promise of wholeness through Christ. The sealing of this promise in the Lord’s Supper may be celebrated, and should follow the prayers and the laying on of hands. Occasion for offering one’s life and gifts for ministry may be provided, as well as opportunities for reconciliation and renewed commitment to the service of Jesus Christ in the world. 

“When a service for wholeness includes anointing and the laying on of hands, these enacted prayers should be introduced carefully in order to avoid misinterpretation and misunderstanding. Healing is to be understood not as the result of the holiness, earnestness, or skill of those enacting the prayers, or of the faith of the ones seeking healing, but as the gift of God through the power of the Holy Spirit” (W-3.5400).

For examples of services for wholeness and healing, see the Book of Common Worship (967-1030).


How do we acknowledge a civil marriage in worship?

The Directory for Worship says, “A service of worship recognizing a civil marriage and confirming it in the community of faith may be appropriate when requested by the couple. The service will be similar to the marriage service except that the opening statement, the declaration of intention, the exchange of the vows by the husband and wife, and the public declaration by the minister reflect the fact that the woman and man are already married to one another according to the laws of the state” (W-4.9006). Christian Marriage: Rite III in the Book of Common Worship (883-892) is a service designed especially for such occasions.


Should the casket be open or closed?

According to the Directory for Worship, “In order that attention in the service be directed to God, when a casket is present it ordinarily is closed. It may be covered with a funeral pall. The service may include other actions common to the community of faith and its cultures when these actions do not detract from or diminish the Christian understanding of death and resurrection.” Additionally, the Directory notes that the funeral service “may be observed before or after the committal of the body” (W-4.1005).


How do we use oil in services of wholeness and healing?

Olive oil or chrism (olive oil mixed with other aromatic oils) has served a variety of ritual purposes in ancient Israel and Christian tradition. In addition to being a sign of health and healing, it represents the mark of leadership and the seal of the Spirit (as in the sacrament of baptism).

James 5:14-15 illustrates the practice of anointing with oil as a symbol of healing prayer in the earliest Christian communities: “Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.” Contemporary liturgies for healing prayer, including the laying on of hands and anointing with oil, are provided in the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship.

Here are some practical guidelines for healing prayer and the use of oil:

When a person approaches the minister or elder for healing prayer, she or he may offer a specific request for healing, or may present herself or himself in silence. The minister or elder places hands on the person's head and says a brief blessing appropriate to the request (if applicable), for example, "(Name), may the God of all mercy forgive you your sins, release you from suffering, and restore you to wholeness and strength." The one receiving healing prayer may respond "Amen."

A small amount of olive oil or chrism is prepared beforehand in an appropriate vessel. This vessel should be a shallow dish, small enough to rest easily in the hand of the minister or elder. Sometimes a shell-shaped vessel is used; the seashell, a symbol of baptism, is a reminder of the ancient use of oil in baptismal liturgies. The minister or elder dips a thumb into the oil (a small quantity is sufficient) and then makes the sign of the cross on the forehead of the one being anointed, saying, "I anoint you with oil in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit," or "As you are anointed with this oil, so may God grant you the anointing of the Holy Spirit." Again, the one anointed may respond "Amen."

It is often helpful to have some kind of congregational singing going on throughout the laying on of hands and anointing with oil. (Music from Taize usually works well.) This serves two purposes. First, it offers a way for the entire congregation to participate actively in prayer, while individuals receive prayers for healing. Second, the sound of the singing offers an envelope of privacy for the one requesting prayer, so that he or she may speak freely about the request for healing.

Sources: The Presbyterian Book of Common Worship (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1993) 1013-1014, and The Companion to the Book of Common Worship, Peter C. Bower, ed. (Louisville: Geneva Press, 2003) 260-261.

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