The Heavenly Physician: Jesus as Healer in Early Christian Art

Now look at Jesus the heavenly physician. Come inside his room of healing, the church.

— Origen of Alexandria (Homily on Leviticus)

In the Book of Common Prayer, the Roman Missal, and in almost any Christian prayer book, there are prayers for healing. Health is a human concern and has always been a focus of prayer among Christians, who pray for the sick whenever they gather for worship.

It certainly is no surprise that health and well-being was also a primary concern in the time of Jesus. Health care existed, of course, but was arguably as difficult to negotiate then as it is now. Physicians could be consulted, but it cost money and was expensive. People could also consult magicians to procure spells to ward off maladies. Quite often the ill and infirm treated their health as a religious matter and turned to gods and goddesses in the Greco-Roman pantheon such as Hercules, Asclepius, and Isis for healing. There were also divine men such as the Greek philosopher Apollonius of Tyana (15–100 CE) who developed a following as a healer. To understand how Jesus is characterized in early-Christian texts and art as a healer and worker of miracles, we must see him within the context of competition among various sources of healing available at the time.

Figure 1: Fresco wall painting, Jesus healing the woman with the blood issue, Catacomb of Peter and Marcellinus, Rome, fourth century CE (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

In the Gospel of Mark, the first canonical gospel, written around 68–70 CE, Jesus is introduced as a healer with the word “physician” (iatros) (Mark 2:17). In the healing episodes in Mark, Jesus is frequently contrasted with other physicians, being like them in terms of healing, but different in the impact his healing has on the patient. In one notable story, a woman comes to Jesus seeking a cure for her hemorrhages. The author of Mark writes, “She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse,” possibly commenting on the efficacy of worldly medicine (Mark 5:26, NRSV). In this pericope the woman is described as going up to Jesus and touching his cloak. Jesus notices that “power left him” as the woman was cured. Jesus thus turns the episode into a discourse on faith, telling the woman that her faith has made her well, and to go and “be healed of your disease.” The healing episode as described in Mark was depicted in early Christian art, a fine example being the painting preserved in the catacomb of Peter and Marcellinus in Rome (Figure 1).

The depictions of the healings and miracles of Jesus as they survive in art before the fifth century demonstrate the continuing need to show the healing power of Jesus over and against other rivals, and the importance of these stories for early Christians. Readers may be surprised to learn that in the early development of Christian art, images of the crucifixion were not of interest to audiences. Instead, images of Jesus as healer and miracle worker were the most prolific.[1]

Why was showing Jesus as healer and miracle worker so important for early Christians? One obvious point is clear: An image of a god (or demigod) that heals the sick and performs miracles is more likely to draw believers than images of a crucified person. Early Christians were interested in promoting Jesus as more powerful than his rivals, and they wanted to exhibit the curative qualities of their religion. At the same time, these images also reveal the laity’s growing need to believe in the miraculous, providing some respite in harsh times. “Healing” and “miracle” may seem to be two different terms, yet in early Christianity they are related. Images of Jesus curing the sick and afflicted  or raising the dead gave hope to their audiences and they established Jesus as not only a healer but the preeminent healer.

Much of the earliest Christian art that survives is funerary in nature, being preserved in places where the dead were buried and their lives celebrated. Funerary art in early Christianity was not for the dead but for the living.

Figure 2: Fresco wall painting, raising of Lazarus, Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome, early to mid-third century CE (photo from Joseph Wilpert, Roma sotterranae: le pitture delle catacomb romane, Rome: Desclée, Lefebvre, 1903, pl. 45)

Catacombs in Rome—located outside the city walls, because in Roman practice the dead must be buried outside the city—contain funerary niches and occasionally sarcophagi where the inhumed were laid to rest. Family members and other Christians would come to the catacombs to pray and honor the dead. Both Prudentius and Jerome claim that Christians celebrated the Eucharist in the Roman catacombs, with Jerome recalling how fearful he was of the dark. Jerome records when he was a boy in Rome that he used to visit the crypts of the martyrs on Sundays, and that the bodies of the entombed were on either side encased in darkness, commenting it reminded him of the prophecy, “They descend to the infernal regions alive.”[2] The art in this underground context was important in making tangible, for the living, the power of Christ’s victory over death. Images of Jesus raising the dead to life are featured in many rooms and on sarcophagi (Figure 2). The art gave expression to ideas and represented events described in the scriptures, but their visual impact in a funerary environment also served to inspire Christians to be united in the face of adversity in the polytheistic world that included competing healers and healing gods. Such images were community-building and bound the group in a relationship with their God.

Jesus and Asclepius

One room in the collection of the National Roman Museum in the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme contains two examples of early Christian funerary sculpture that wonderfully exhibit the importance for early Christian communities of portraying Jesus as a healer and miracle worker. The first example, the sarcophagus of Marcus Claudianus, dates from the fourth century and features several iterations of the various healings and miracles of Jesus that are mentioned in the New Testament (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Marble, Sarcophagus of Marcus Claudianus, Rome, 330-340 CE, Museo Nazionale Romano – Palazzo Massimo alle Terme (photo: author)

The front of the sarcophagus features a prominent central figure: the orant, a female figure, based on a Roman prototype, that stands with her hands raised in the position of prayer. On either side of this praying figure are episodes of Jesus performing nature miracles, turning water into wine at Cana, and dividing loaves. Jesus is presented as a Roman in typical Roman dress, in toga and pallium, and clean-shaven (many early images of Jesus did not include the iconic beard, a feature that may surprise modern viewers).[3] The narrative of healings and miracles is bookended by Peter striking water from the rock on the left side, and Jesus depicted raising Lazarus from the dead on the right side, touching his burial house with a curious tool or implement that will be discussed below.

Figure 4: Marble funerary plaque, Terme fragment, Rome, 290-310 CE, Museo Nazionale Romano – Palazzo Massimo delle Terme (photo: author)

Displayed above the Marcus Claudianus sarcophagus in the Terme museum is a funerary plaque, on which representations of Jesus are preserved: he is shown bearded and wearing a toga, his chest bare, as he teaches and also heals with the power of touch (Figure 4). The guise in which Jesus is represented has caused some confusion among scholars regarding the context in which this relief was viewed originally. Some scholars interpret the clothing of Jesus as indicating that he was understood as a Cynic philosopher, given that Cynics were itinerant and were arrayed in the same manner.[4] Others have used this fragment to suggest that in some representations Jesus’s appearance deliberately recalls rival gods, specifically the healing god Asclepius, who was portrayed in a similar manner, as we shall see below.[5]

These two examples of sculpture produced in Rome during the fourth century exemplify the importance for early Christians at this time and place of the idea of Jesus as a dominant healer and miracle worker. In both similar and different ways, the objects demonstrate the environment of the early Christians, one in which monotheists and polytheists lived side-by-side in the Empire. One of the biggest threats to the rise of Christianity was competing religions, including the cult of Asclepius, the Greek healing god, that had been adopted by the Romans. Originally from Epidauros, he was “imported” to different cities to battle outbreaks of disease. Ovid writes of Asclepius’s advent in Rome, that his symbol, the snake, slithered off the boat and onto Tiber Island where his temple stood.[6] Now, the temple has given way to a Christian church, but the serpent imagery on the stone foundation remains.

Asclepius was the son of Apollo, trained in the healing arts by a centaur, and he was killed by Zeus for transgressing his authority. But he was raised to Olympus upon his death. His cultic observance lasted into late antiquity with temples known as Asclepeion serving as de facto healing centers. Patristic authors noted the threat of Asclepius, calling him out by name. Justin Martyr, writing in Rome in the mid-second century CE, mentions him in comparison to Christ, saying “And when we say that he (Christ) healed the lame, the paralytic, and those born blind, and raised the dead, we appear to say things similar to those said to have been done by Asclepius.”[7] Athanasius of Alexandria, writing in the fourth century CE, mentions that Asclepius was deified as a healer but is not comparable to Jesus, who heals not with matter such as herbs but healed mankind with his Resurrection.[8] But Asclepius had his defenders, who ardently believed in the efficacy of the healing cult. Aelius Aristides claims that he lived “many varied lives” due to the power of the god.[9]

Figure 5: Marble, Statue of Asclepius, Rome, Second century CE, Galleria Borghese (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Asclepius was depicted in a consistent manner, often with a beard (though occasionally clean-shaven), in a toga with his chest bare, and carrying a serpent-entwined staff (Figure 5). The appearance of Asclepius has drawn comparisons to the image of Jesus on the Terme fragment mentioned above (Figure 4). Art could be used to present Christ as analogous to Asclepius or like other gods in appearance, making the Jesus movement more palatable to polytheists. If Jesus were portrayed as similar to Asclepius in appearance,  and healing through the power of touch, he could be recognized as a healer akin to Asclepius, only greater.

The testimonies of the cult show that the healing of Asclepius came about through the power of dreams. Asclepius would purportedly visit the patient napping in the Asclepeion and provide a healing remedy or prescription. One blind man testified that the god revealed in a dream that “he should go and take the blood of a white cock along with honey and compound an eye salve,” whereupon he was healed thanks to Asclepius.[10] Unlike the testimonies of Asclepius’s healing through dreams, however, Christian art shows Jesus healing his patients directly, with the power of physical touch as on the Terme fragment above, where a bearded Jesus touches the sick. This feature sets Jesus apart as a healer in the manifest world, not the ethereal realm of the subconscious.

There are several instances in the gospels of Jesus raising the dead, and these are among the most popular scenes for representation in catacomb art and on sarcophagi. The most frequently occuring example is the raising of Lazarus, an event recorded only in the Gospel of John.[11] In this miracle, Jesus beckons Lazarus out of his tomb and also takes special notice of Lazarus’s sister Martha, who acknowledges the messianic status of Jesus (John 11:27). Lazarus is typically depicted in early Christian art as a mummified figure in a little burial house as Jesus touches the dwelling. The raising of Lazarus was a popular scene in a funerary environment as it emphasized the final resurrection and provided comfort for the family of the dead.

The act of raising the dead was also a well-known feature of the Asclepius myth. In fact, several ancient writers attest that Asclepius was slain by Zeus for being too good at his job as a healer: by raising the dead, he made Hades angry. As Pliny the Elder states, “Asclepius was struck by lightning for bringing Tyndareus back to life.”[12] Asclepius transgressed the bounds of his authority.

By exhibiting Christ as a successful raiser of the dead, requiring no permission or authority from above to perform such a feat, Christian art emphasized Jesus as more powerful than other contemporary deities or men acclaimed as healers. Early Christian art was multivalent both in intention and in its reception. An image of Jesus raising Lazarus can provide comfort for the family of the inhumed, remind them of the resurrection secured by Christ for the faithful, and show Jesus as unrivaled, all in one simple snapshot. Another feature of these scenes is the curious inclusion of Jesus using a tool in his healings and miracles. On first glance, it appears that in many of these images Jesus is using some type of magic wand.

The Magic Wand of Jesus?

In catacomb painting and funerary sculpture examples of Jesus healing and performing miracles, he often holds a stylized implement. This could be thin and reed-like, as in the catacomb examples, or thicker and ruddy as in the sarcophagi examples (Figure 6).

Figure 6: Marble, sarcophagus fragment with Jesus raising the dead and visitation of magi, Vatican, fourth century CE, Museo Pio Cristiano, inv. 31450 (photo: author)

There is no mention in any of the gospels of Jesus utilizing a tool in the performance of his miracles. The closest mention is Jesus using saliva or mud in the healing of a blind man in the Gospel according to Mark (Mark 8:22). Yet in these images Jesus appears to be holding what could be called a virga or rabdos, a type of wand in antiquity akin to the caduceus of Hermes. Some scholars have used these images to conclude that late ancient audiences thought Jesus was some type of magician wielding a magic wand.[13] When I show these images to young audiences, their initial exclamation is that Jesus is like Harry Potter, part of the wizarding world of Hogwarts.

However, there are several reasons to think this is not meant to be a type of wand. First, magic in antiquity did not prescribe the use of implements in spells. The efficacy of magic was achieved by the proper recitation and recreation of the spells themselves, not by any type of wand. Second, there are no recovered images of any magician in the performance of their job. This lack of images suggests that wands were not primary in late ancient magic. Furthermore, the early church writers certainly did not want to associate the practice of magic with Jesus, as they deemed magic repugnant and too aligned with polytheism. In these images, Jesus is not a magician; he is a divine healer and miracle worker, so the “wand” must mean something else.

Interpreting early Christian art often means decoding the language of symbols, and making connections to other cognate iconographic figures and images.  Jesus’s “wand” does bear a resemblance to the staff of Asclepius, though it lacks the tell-tale serpent and so this connection seems less likely. But there is another biblical miracle worker featured in catacomb art and on early Christian funerary sculpture who accomplishes his feats with a staff-like tool. That figure is Moses.

Moses was understood by early Christians as one of the most important miracle-working figures prior to Jesus.[14] His feats manifested his authority and his connection to the divine. Moses is depicted striking water from the rock and crossing the Red Sea, using his staff in the performance of these miracles. The tool that Jesus wields is not a wand but a staff. This is meant to connect Jesus to Moses, and also to show that the nascent church is the repository of healings and miracles on earth while Christ is in heaven.

These images accomplish that task by showing the staff Jesus wields as being handed down to another figure. On the sarcophagus of Marcus Claudianus, on the far left side, there is a figure striking water from a rock with the staff. However, this is not Moses but Peter. In a non-canonical text, the apocryphal Acts of Peter, the apostle strikes the walls of his jail cell, releasing water, and then baptizes his jailers.[15] This fairly obscure passage from the Acts of Peter had a powerful impact on the creation of images. Peter can be identified on this sarcophagus as he is being arrested by the jailers (recognizable by their hats), next to the striking of the rock scene. The staff of Moses, now bequeathed to Peter, shows that Peter carries on, in the church, the miracle-working power once associated with Moses. Such images remind viewers that the church is that physical place where miracles, especially healing miracles, still happen. The staff is an iconographic reference to the enduring power left to the church by Christ.

Figure 7: Wood, Jesus raising Lazarus and performing nature miracles, Rome, 432 CE, Doors of Santa Sabina (photo: author)

On the doors of the church of Santa Sabina, on the Aventine Hill in Rome, are some of the oldest wood carvings in early Christian art. Various scenes from scripture are depicted in relief, including one of the earliest images of Jesus crucified. Among the episodes from the New Testament is Jesus’s raising of Lazarus from the dead and his performance of various miracles, all with the staff (Figure 7). However, the interpretation of one particular scene has vexed scholars and viewers alike: Jesus appears to be ascended and in heaven, where he is encircled by a victory wreath, while standing below, the disciples Paul and Peter are shown reaching up to grasp something that is descending to them, and an orant figure stands in between them (Figure 8). It is unclear what exactly it is that the disciples are reaching for. One suggestion is that it is a cross, enclosed in a circle, for there seems to be a carved line extending out of the circle.

Figure 8: Wood, Resurrected Jesus, Rome, 432 CE, Doors of Santa Sabina (photo: author)

Currently, I am working on this image, using photogrammetry technology to support the theory that this carved line is intentional and not due to age or damage. In light of some of the images discussed here, and the importance of Jesus’s role as healer in early Christian Rome, it seems likely to me that Jesus is represented on this panel as handing down the healing and miracle-working staff to Peter and Paul. In this way, the image communicates to the onlooker a narrative in which the church is the location of physical healing and miracles.

What better place to advertise this message than on the actual doors of a church. The legacy of healing and miracle working is long in the Christian Church, echoed in scripture, liturgy, and art, evoking Origen’s words that beckon the suffering into the heavenly physician’s house, “Come inside his room of healing, the church.”

Lee M. Jefferson is the Nelson D. and Mary McDowell Rodes Associate Professor of Religion at Centre College.  He has authored Christ the Miracle Worker in Early Christian Art (Fortress Press, 2014), and co-authored and edited The Art of Empire: Christian Art in Its Imperial Context (Fortress Press, 2015), and contributed chapters to recent volumes such as The Routledge Handbook of Early Christian Art (Routledge, 2018). He earned his M.A. and Ph.D. in religion from Vanderbilt University. His current book project focuses on the doors of Santa Sabina, Rome, and a particular panel featuring Peter and Paul.


[1] The work of Felicity Harley-McGowan should be consulted for crucifixion imagery. The most recreated images were of Jesus raising the dead, Jesus healing the paralytic, Jesus healing the blind, and Jesus healing the woman with the blood issue. Other nature-miracle images show Jesus feeding the five thousand and the miracle at Cana. For more data, consult Freidrich Deichmann, Ikonographisches Register für Reportorium der Christlich-Antiken, Band I, Rom und Ostia (Wiesbaden: F. Steiner, 1967); and my Christ the Miracle Worker in Early Christian Art (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013).

[2] Jerome writes of this in his Commentary on Ezekiel (40. 5-13; PL 25; col. 375). Writing in 380 CE, Jerome’s commentary could be the earliest recovered description of a catacomb in Rome. Prudentius writes more descriptively of the tomb of Hippolytus in his hymn, see Peristephanon 11.153-60 (PL 60; see LCL 398).

[3] For more on the beard of Jesus in art, see Paul Zanker, The Mask of Socrates (Berkeley: UC Press, 1995); and Robin M. Jensen, Face to Face: Portraits of the Divine in Early Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005), 154–157.

[4] John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994).

[5] Thomas Mathews, The Clash of Gods (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 72.

[6] Ovid, Metamorphoses, 15.736-41.

[7] Justin Martyr, First Apology, 22.

[8] Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 49.

[9] Aristides, Oratio, 23.15-18. For complete testimonies on Asclepius, see Emma and Ludwig Edelstein, Asclepius: A Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1945, 1988).

[10] Inscriptiones Graecae 14.966 (second century CE) see Wendy Cotter, Miracles in Greco-Roman Antiquity (New York: Routledge, 1999), 18.

[11] The raising of Lazarus occurs in sixty-five extant examples or Roman sarcophagi, far outpacing images of Jesus raising Jairus’s daughter, the widow’s son at Nain, or Jesus as Ezekiel in the Valley of the Dry Bones. See Deichmann, Bovini and Brandenburg, Reportorium der Christlich-Antiken Sarkophage, Band 1, pts. 1, 123.

[12] Pliny, Natural History, 29.1.3.

[13] Mathews concludes as much, see Clash of Gods, 54–89. Also see P.C. Finney’s rebuttal in “Do You Think God is a Magician” in Akten des Symposiums Früchristliche Sarkophage (Deutches Archäologisches Institut, 1999), 99–108.

[14] Origen calls Moses one of two men who have been given to the human race who performed miracles, the other being Jesus (Contra Celsum, 1.45).

[15] Acts of Peter 5 (Linus text). See David Eastman’s The Ancient Martyrdom Accounts of Peter and Paul (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2015).

This material is licensed under an Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Recommended Citation: Jefferson, Lee M. (2019): “The Heavenly Physician: Jesus as Healer in Early Christian Art,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 5: No. 1, Article 5. Available at

The Healing for Which We Long and Labor

In interviews that took place in Rome in 2013 shortly after he was elected, Pope Francis described the church as a field hospital after battle.[1]

The thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds. . . . And you have to start from the ground up.

As a member of the human family, each of us is weak, wounded, sick, and sore in so many different ways. As followers of Jesus Christ, our journey from wounded and sick to wholeness and holiness is a journey of becoming each day more and more the Body of Christ.

Come, you sinners, poor and needy,
Weak and wounded, sick and sore,
Jesus, Son of God, will save you,
Full of pity, love, and pow’r.
I will arise and go to Jesus,
He will embrace me in his arms;
In the arms of my dear Savior,
Oh, there are ten thousand charms.[2]

Each of us has been invited into the embrace of Jesus who will heal us and transform us into himself. This is our vocation—individually and communally. This is what it means to live the Gospel life. This is what is means to become Christ. This “coming to Jesus” is a journey begun at Baptism. Our entire life is a journey of coming to the wholeness or holiness that is our Christian identity.

There is a balm in Gilead, to make the wounded whole;
There is a balm in Gilead, to heal the sin-sick soul.[3]

The very first national convention of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians I attended was the second one; it took place in Chicago in 1979. Its theme was Prayer: Performance and Participation. Sometimes the word “performance” is misunderstood to mean “entertainment” or “showing off one’s talent.” However, whenever we celebrate liturgy we are engaged in ritual or ritual performance. And that is a good thing. Vatican II called it “active participation.”

Singing within the liturgical ritual we call worship engages the whole person—body, mind, heart, and spirit—when it is performed fully and consciously. Because it has “performative” power, this liturgical singing can be transformative. In other words, such activity—this singing that we are about—has an important role in transforming us individually and as a community—into Christ.

Performative Language Theory

Theologians and philosophers who work with performative language theory can help us understand and appreciate more deeply what we are actually doing when we gather for worship. They have concluded that in liturgical activity, when we speak or sing our prayer, we are accomplishing something.[4] Here’s a simple example. When we shout: “Look out!” we are  warning someone of impending danger. The power to effect or accomplish this something, according to John Searle, is produced not simply by words or word order, but by deep syntactic structure, stress and intonation contour.[5] So what is intonation contour anyway? Well, we don’t whisper sweetly “look out” when someone is in danger. We shout LOOK OUT! Performative language includes syntactic structure, stress, and intonation contour. Sounds like music to me.

A musical setting in combination with the text heightens the power of the words to do something or accomplish something in the singing of a hymn because of the presence of melody or pitch, rhythm and meter. In liturgy, the performative and theological meaning is potentially enhanced when music and text are joined. I can simply say “O Healing River send down your water.” Or we can sing it using rhythm and intonation contour:

O healing river, send down your waters,
Send down your waters upon this land.
O healing river, send down your waters,
And wash the blood from off the sand.[6]

Another characteristic of performative speech is that it can be repeated in new situations. Repetition can be a good thing! For Christmas and Easter and other liturgical events, we are happy singing the classic hymns and Mass settings again and again. These texts are not sung to provide us with information. Rather, they are sung to perform our faith, to express wonder and praise. Singing the hymn texts expresses, and actually helps to create a situation or facilitates the recognition of a situation. That situation may be praising God, asking for mercy, rejoicing that Christ has conquered sin and death or expressing our need for forgiveness.

Jean Ladrière points to another important aspect of the performativity of liturgical language. He claims that a performative activity, such as singing, awakens in the person singing a certain affective disposition that opens up existence to a specific field of reality.[7] An effect is produced. We speak an attitude.

O, Lord, hear my prayer. O Lord hear my prayer.
When I call answer me.
O Lord hear my prayer. O Lord hear my prayer.
Come and listen to me.[8]

This attitude of petition opens us up to prayer. We speak the attitude of pleading. An effect is produced: we accomplish the act of petitioning or asking.

Of course, sometimes when we go to liturgy, we may not personally feel the attitudes of a particular hymn or song. On any particular day, we may not be feeling grateful or joyful or forgiving. Nevertheless, like the small child who is repeatedly reminded by her parents to “say thank you,” Christian dispositions such as praise, love, contrition, gratitude, are learned over time, until they become our own fundamental Christian dispositions or affections.

But liturgical singing not only disposes individuals. It also constitutes a community. According to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM 2002), this is one of the intended goals of the gathering and communion processionals. Article 47 states that the purpose of the entrance chant or opening hymn “is to open the celebration, foster the unity of those who have been gathered, introduce their thoughts to the mystery of the liturgical season or festivity, and accompany the procession of priests and ministers.”[9] Article 86 states that the purpose of the communion chant or hymn “is to express the communicants’ union in spirit by means of the unity of their voices, to show joy of heart, and to highlight more clearly the ‘communitarian’ (emphasis added) nature of the procession to receive Communion.”[10] In other words, one of the underlying ideas of both articles 47 and 86 is that the singing itself aids in situating the assembly in an experience of unity during the entrance and communion processions. (Instrumental music during the communion procession doesn’t do this, unless everyone in the assembly is playing an instrument!)

An experience of singing together is not only spiritual or mental. Rather, it is in a palpable way also physical. Through the participation of our bodies, whether singing, listening, moving to the rhythms of the hymns, we have a concrete, that is physical and real (mental or spiritual), experience of unity. Both the gathering and communion processionals are meant to bring the assembly together in a common sentiment, whether that be praise, petition, contrition, or thanksgiving. We are looking at language here, not as an object, but as an activity.

Why is unity so much to be desired in these liturgical experiences? Because we are all moving throughout life from the experience of fragmentation and isolation to becoming more and more, day by day, the one Body of Christ. This happens as we become more and more united with Christ. But our union with Christ also is meant to unite us with our sisters and brothers so that we can be the presence of Christ in our world. Hymn singing has the potential to assist in this transformation through the very act of singing.

In the Eucharistic prayer, the presider (on our behalf) calls the Holy Spirit to come down upon the bread and wine so that it may become the body and blood of Christ. But that is only half the story. The presider (on our behalf) also calls the Holy Spirit to come down upon the gathered assembly so that we may become one in Christ and with each other. Our singing situates us in that space where it is possible to experience that unity—however fleeting and fragile it may be—so that we might believe in the Lord’s call to unity and live in hope of its final realization.

Ubi caritas, est vera, est vera:
Deus ibi est, Deus ibi est.

In true communion let us gather.
May all divisions cease
And in their place be Christ the Lord,
Our risen Prince of Peace.

May we who gather at this table
To share the bread of life
Become a sacrament of love,
Your healing touch, O Christ.[11]

Yes, may all divisions cease as we become united with Christ and with each other. That is the true communion that we celebrate. In receiving the Eucharist, we become the sacrament of Christ, that is, we become Christ’s presence for each other in our wounded, sin-sick world.

Phenomenology: Disclosure

One of the contemporary philosophical disciplines that can help us grasp some of these ideas is phenomenology. Having a phenomenological attitude means that we look at things in their truth and in their evidencing. By evidencing we mean “allowing a thing to manifest itself to us.”[12] We have this experience all the time. For example, we can say that when the assembly gathers, it manifests the presence of Christ. At the same time, the assembly and each individual in it also receives that manifestation of Christ’s presence. Furthermore, the singing assembly can manifest the presence of Christ through the particulars of a hymn while also receiving a manifestation of Christ by means of the hymn singing.

Consider the first three stanzas of an ancient Christmas hymn.

Of the Father’s love begotten
Ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega,
He the source, the ending he
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see,
Evermore and evermore!

O that birth forever blessed,
When the Virgin, full of grace,
Overshadowed by the Spirit,
Bore the Savior of our race;
And the babe, the world’s redeemer,
First revealed his sacred face,
Evermore and evermore!

This is he whom seers and sages
Sang of old with one accord,
Whom the voices of the prophets
Promised in their faithful word;
Now he shines, the long-expected;
Let creation praise its Lord
Evermore and evermore![13]

One of the keys to the theological meaning of this text is the repetition of the phrase “evermore and evermore.” It highlights the notion of time and eternity that are part of the focus of the hymn. As singers and listeners, we stand in awe and wonder at what is disclosed to us: God the Father’s love, existing from the very beginning and forever. The image of the first and last letter of the Greek alphabet, the alpha and omega, capture this expanse. God’s love is the source and ending of everything that exists. In stanza two, God’s love is disclosed in the mystery of the Incarnation. The face of God’s love is revealed in the face of a baby. God’s love is disclosed so that we can experience it in our own human flesh. The third stanza reminds us that this disclosure of God’s love in human flesh was foretold and sung by prophets from of old. All creation responds with praise at the disclosure of this birth.

When a singing assembly is engaged in sung prayer, many truths may disclose themselves to the group and to individuals through the songs sung or listened to. In fact, the singing itself may be performing or articulating a state of affairs. So, for example, the truth of God’s mercy, or glory, or goodness may be manifested or disclosed. When we worship within a singing assembly, various aspects of our Christian faith are celebrated and made available to our hearts, minds, and our entire beings. This experience is part of the transformative power of liturgical music making.

Symbolizing Activity

As we all know, the liturgy consists of an interplay of many symbols that interact with each other to express or mediate theological meaning. This interplay includes sacred objects such as the altar and crucifix, bread and wine; gestures such as kneeling and standing; colors and fabric, art and architecture, sound and silence. Liturgical singing is one of those symbols. As symbol, ritual song opens up to us levels of reality that might otherwise be closed to us. It invites participation and points beyond itself. By shifting our center of awareness, symbols can change our values. This shifting can occur when a symbol invites us to look at ourselves or some aspect of reality in a new or deeper or broader way. This is what gives ritual song the potential to be transformative. This dynamic is constantly in process as the symbols of the liturgy offer us new opportunities to make sense of our world and to find our identity within it. As we are integrated or assimilated into the world of the hymns, we open up to the possibility of intentional self-transcendence: we can become different persons if we allow ourselves to be carried away by new faith meanings and orient ourselves in new ways within our faith world. By engaging with symbols, we build ourselves by building our world. This “building” of ourselves is the process of change that is involved in transformation.[14]

I began my doctoral studies at The Catholic University of America in the same month that Bill Clinton was inaugurated President for his first term. A few days before the Inauguration, tents were set up on the National Mall where we could hear a great variety of the music that is performed in the United States. Wynton Marsalis was playing in one tent, bluegrass musicians in another, and polka bands and other groups could be found further down. The folk singers Peter, Paul, and Mary were beginning their performance as I managed to find my way into their tent. As I listened, I discovered that their songs had been part of the very fabric of my life. I felt that they were, in fact, singing my life as I had experienced it until that moment and now especially in that moment. For their final song, they invited us to sing along with them, but only if we sang the song like a prayer. The song was “We Shall Overcome.”

We shall overcome. We shall overcome.
We shall overcome someday.
O deep in my heart, I do believe, that we shall overcome someday.[15]

The power of that civil rights hymn and the great crowd of ordinary Americans like me singing it, the place in our nation’s capital, the moment in time just before the Inauguration, and the history of the singing of that song in our country was overwhelming. While everyone else sang full-throated, I stood there incapable of singing, as tears welled up in my eyes. All of these songs—but especially the civil rights hymn—sang not only my life, but our life, our world, our dreams, and our very being as Americans in that moment. As symbolizing activity, the singing “carried me away,” inviting participation, transforming and deepening my awareness, and further building my world.

Perhaps you have had a similar experience with other songs or hymns. By pointing beyond itself to a world where God’s justice flourishes, liturgical singing can challenge an assembly to live more just lives. By shifting our center of awareness, singing, as symbolic activity, can change our values.  This happens because music making, as ritual symbol, can form the imagination and the affections of the worshiping community. The worshiping assembly appropriates the symbol—in this case the hymn—and “dwells in” its meaning. The assembly is invited to inhabit the world of the hymn. When we engage in singing, playing, listening, or moving with the rhythms of the music, the song can mediate participatory knowledge, a living into the music that allows our bodies and our spirits to breathe with its rhythms and phrases in such a way that they reveal the saving presence of God and our communion with the entire assembly.

My heart shall sing of the day you bring.
Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near,
And the world is about to turn.[16]

When we sing this refrain to each stanza of “The Canticle of the Turning,” we inhabit the world of the hymn and dwell in its meaning. This is how singing together can potentially invite a worshiping assembly to deep conversion and transformation. Over many seasons and years, such hymn singing has the potential to transform us into just people: people who do justice.

Singing in the liturgy has the potential to transform us into more faithful followers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, not only when we sing about justice and peace, but all the time. The dialogic call-and-response dynamic of the Gospel is ritualized in the liturgy and then lived out in daily life. We listen to the Word of God and we respond—often or usually in song. Our Christian agenda—if we can call it that—is to live the life of Christ who showed us how to respond to the poor and to instances of injustice. Christ’s life is the model for our discipleship. Luke 4:18–19 (echoing Isaiah 61:1–4) records Jesus saying: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Needless to say, our concern about justice cannot be focused only on the texts we sing. We also need to pay attention to how the community is ordered to worship and how it acts justly.

Why Sing?

Back in the 1960s, Victor Zuckerkandl posed the question: Why do people engage in singing? (On Sunday morning we might sometimes be tempted to ask why they don’t sing, as Thomas Day did several decades ago.) Zuckerkandl observed that people sing when they abandon themselves fully to whatever they are doing.  This abandonment, Zuckerkandl pointed out, is not for its own sake, that is, not to simply forget self. Rather, this abandonment is meant to be an enlargement of the self, an enhancement of the self that at the same time is an experience of breaking down barriers.[17] (The singing that occurs at Taizé is a good example of this.) In theological language, we might talk about this abandonment as an emptying of the self in order to be open to God or filled with God. In addition, this breaking down of barriers allows us to be open, not only to the OTHER (that is, God), but also the other, that is, a fellow human being. By being drawn into the activity of singing, we are carried out of ourselves. The result is that separation is overcome and transformed into togetherness. In the specific case of hymn singing, such an experience of transcendence (being carried out of ourselves) may allow for the possibility of an experience of the sacred or of God’s presence. We have all had these experiences. They have touched us so that we remember them long after they happened.

I have had the opportunity to visit the pilgrimage site in Taizé, France, twice. By means of short, simple, repetitive chants, the singing draws the pilgrims in, enabling them to participate. Since Taizé attracts international visitors who speak in a great variety of languages and come from many different countries, cultures, and political, social, and economic settings, the music of Taizé serves to break down barriers and overcome differences. This allows participants to experience a sense of unity and belonging. In a very real way, the group’s music-making becomes a type of “situating” speech. The symbolizing activity, that is, singing, invites each worshiper to participate and inhabit its world.

When we are willing and intentional in our singing or listening, the ability of music-making to break down barriers is particularly striking. Many years ago, I attended the funeral of the father of a good friend. This friend and his brother were both accomplished church musicians and wished to provide the best music possible for their father’s Funeral Mass. The local cathedral organist was also a friend and so they engaged him to play the Mass. After spending several minutes attempting to figure out how to turn on the organ and delaying the funeral, the brothers abandoned all hope of having organ music. The congregation was invited to sing a cappella (without accompaniment), except for some places where one of the sons accompanied the assembly on his violin with melody or descants. The voices carried the day. The singing was intentional and glorious in its simplicity. That ad hoc group of worshipers and music makers sang their hearts out in the most beautiful and inspiring way because they paid attention and deliberately intended to participate.

The theologian and musician, Don Saliers, points out that ritual music has the power of transformation by forming, over time, the imagination and affectivity (affections) of the assembly. It does this by “forming and expressing those emotions which constitute the very Christian life itself.”[18] Saliers is not talking about passing, superficial feelings, but complex, permanent attitudes and deep emotions. In other words, when we sing songs of praise or thanksgiving, contrition or forgiveness, we are being formed in these Christian affections. By exhibiting (or performing) these Christian attitudes, we participate—through our music making—in the process of being shaped or formed in these very attitudes. Over time, for good or for ill, assemblies will be shaped by their musical choices. The emotional range of their worship music will either enhance or inhibit their ability to enter into those praisings, repentings, lamentings, hopings, longings, rejoicings, and thankings that are peculiar to the heart of Christian worship.

Hymn singing by itself does not guarantee transformation or conversion or healing. Rather, it provides the possibility whereby hearts and minds are touched so that they might be open to the workings of Christ’s Spirit within the assembly. The one guarantee that we do have is the promise that Christ’s Spirit is present when we gather for worship.

We need to work at the craft of our music. It is one of the vehicles through which God’s grace works in our midst. Furthermore, the assembly’s dynamic engagement with the process of transformation is essential. This occurs over time when individuals and communities give themselves over regularly to worship. Such dynamic engagement is encouraged when the language and music are authentic and life-giving. The ultimate goal is the transformation of the individual and the assembly into the one Body of Christ. That is the healing for which we long and for which we labor.

Liturgical singing is not simply some pleasant extra that makes our worship more enjoyable—although its beauty and appropriateness are highly valued. No, liturgical singing is an essential part of our lifelong quest to transform the individual and the assembly into the Body of Christ. Announcing the Good News and building a just world are not optional goals for the church. Neither should our ongoing efforts to enhance and enliven the song of each liturgical assembly be optional.  The goals are the same for both. When in our music God is glorified, we can go forth into the world with Christ’s message of Good News. This is what disciples do in the field hospital we affectionately call “our world.”

Judith Marie Kubicki, Ph.D., is a Felician Franciscan Sister from Buffalo, New York and Associate Professor in the Department of Theology at Fordham University. Sr. Judith has published three books, including  The Song of the Singing Assembly: A Theology of Christian Hymnody (GIA, 2017), and her articles and reviews have appeared in academic and pastoral journals, including Worship, Studia Liturgica, Theological Studies, GIA Quarterly, The Hymn, Pastoral Music, Aim, and Pastoral Liturgy. She is a past President of the North American Academy of Liturgy and a former Chair of the Board of Directors of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians. This summer, NPM awarded Dr. Kubicki their most prestigious award, the Jubilate Deo award.


[1] Antonio Spadaro, “A Big Heart Open to God: An Interview with Pope Francis. America (September 30, 2013). This article is a summary of three interviews that Spadaro held with Pope Francis in Rome in August 2013.

[2] “Come, You Sinners, Poor and Needy,” Text of the verses, Joseph Hart, 1712–1768, Hymns Composed on Various Subjects, 1759, alt.; refrain anonymous. [Editor’s note: This and all the hymn texts quoted in this essay were sung together with the whole assembly when this talk was first delivered.]

[3] “There Is a Balm in Gilead,” Text: Jeremiah 8:22; Tune BALM IN GILEAD; African American Spiritual.

[4] John Langshaw Austin, How to Do Things with Words (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1962), 5.

[5] John R. Searle, “Austin on Locutionary and Illocutionary Acts,” Essays on J.L. Austin, ed. Isaiah Berlin, et al. (London: Oxford University Press, 1973), 151.

[6] “Healing River,” Text: Fran Minkoff.

[7] Jean Ladriére, “The Performativity of Liturgical Language,” in Liturgical Experience of Faith, ed. H. Schmidt and David N. Power, Concilium series, no. 82 (New York: Herder and Herder, 1973), 56–57.

[8] “O Lord, Hear My Prayer,” Text: Taizé Community, 1982.

[9] U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, General Instruction on the Roman Missal, 2002. No. 47.

[10] GIRM, 2002. No. 86.

[11] “Ubi Caritas,” Text: based on Ubi Caritas, 9th c. Tune: Bob Hurd; acc. Craig K. Kingsbury (Portland: Oregon Catholic Press, 1996, 2004).

[12] Robert Sokolowski, Introduction to Phenomenology (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 44, 64–65, 93.  See also Judith M. Kubicki, The Presence of Christ in the Gathered Assembly (New York: Continuum, 2006), 29–30.

[13] “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” Text: Corde natus ex Parentis; Aurelius Prudentius, 348–413; tr. by John M. Neale, 1818–1866 and Henry Baker, 1821–1877, alt.

[14] Louis-Marie Chauvet, Symbol and Sacrament: A Sacramental Reinterpretation of Christian Existence, trans. Patrick Madigan and Madeleine E. Beaumont (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1995, 84–85, 110–112.

[15] “We Shall Overcome,” African American Spiritual.

[16] “Canticle of the Turning,” Text: Luke 1:46–58; Rory Cooney.

[17] Victor Zuckerkandl, Sound and Symbol, vol. 2, trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969), 23.

[18] Don Saliers, “The Integrity of Sung Prayer,” Worship 55 (July 1981), 293.

Reprinted from September 2019 (volume 43:5) Pastoral Music copyright 2019 National Association of Pastoral Musicians. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Recommended Citation: Kubicki, Judith M. (2019): “The Healing for Which We Long and Labor” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 5: No. 1, Article 8. Available at

The Church’s Work of Healing: Prayer, Laying on of Hands, and Anointing

Even a casual reading of the canonical gospels reveals that much of Jesus’s ministry was devoted to healing. His healing was of physical ailments (the woman with the hemorrhage, Mark 5:21–24)[1], or mental and spiritual ailments (“Jesus went about curing every disease and every sickness,” Matthew 4:23–24). He cured disabilities, such as the man born blind (John 9:1–12), as well as social maladies (the woman “caught in adultery,” John 8:3–11). Healing—making whole—was never an end in itself, but rather a means by which Christ led that person to resurrection and life (salvation). It was a sign of the reign of God begun. In all of the examples handed down to us, healing was a means to an end, as it always pointed to the presence and power of God.

The healings recounted in the gospels might remain simply stories of what Jesus did long ago and far away, except that the body of Christ, the Church, is formed through the birth, life, death, resurrection, and glorification of Christ, and born into all of that through the waters of baptism. The Church is charged with the command to continue the work he began—to “do this” until Christ returns: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 28:19).

Stained glass depiction from St. Baavo Cathedral in Ghent of Jesus healing the sick. Photo by Thomas Quine.

To be a disciple—or perhaps better, an apprentice—is not primarily to learn a teaching that is external to one’s own being, but to pattern one’s life on the teaching, and imitate the actions, of the Rabbi. What may begin with a deep knowing (“let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. . .” Philippians 2:5) is rehearsed and embodied socially, kinesthetically, emotionally, spiritually, and mentally. “Then Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal” (Luke 9:1–2). A chapter later in Luke, the charge to the original twelve followers is expanded to include others, an expansion that continues through the centuries to all those made disciples through baptism. “After this, the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. . .” “He told them “Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’” (Luke 10:1, 8–9). And so the Church proclaims healing and the presence of the kingdom of God in words and deeds until Christ comes again. But how does the Church do that?

The primary New Testament text and description of the early Church’s care for the sick is embedded in the letter of James:

Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. (James 5:14–15)

The author of the letter of James gathered together three fundamental ecclesial practices—tools of healing—by which the Church would minister with and to the sick. The first is prayer, which is attested to in scripture and early Christian writing as the obligation of all Christians. But here, it is not prayer spoken at a distance: it is prayer “over” the sick, which joins prayer to the second fundamental ecclesial practice, the laying on of hands. Many years ago, Godfrey Diekmann suggested that the laying on of hands was the fundamental gesture or action for the communication of God’s presence in ritual and sacrament. He wrote that the “laying on of hands, understood as a conferring of the Holy Spirit, constituted in early Christianity the basic liturgical rite common to all the sacraments. In other words, this ‘prayer over’ is at the heart of the Church’s prayer for the sick, the ritual by which the Holy Spirit has been brought “into the center and heart of the sacramental rites.”[2] Finally, the letter includes a third element in the work of healing through the Church, and that is anointing with oil. All three of these—spoken prayer, laying on of hands, and anointing with oil—are forms of prayer. But how did anointing with oil become central to healing within the first century of Christianity, eventually becoming the primary ritual matter and action that gave its name to the sacrament of the sick?

Holy oils

Like many physical or ritual dimensions of sacramental celebrations, oil has a long history of biblical, cultural, and Christological associations that contribute to its centrality. Scripture describes oil used for various ritual and practical purposes, from simple cooking oil to the best of fresh oil used for offerings and exchanges, to scented oil mixed with expensive perfumes and spices used to set apart places and mark persons as holy.[3] In the New Testament, anointing with oil is described in two different ways: first as a pouring over someone, and second as an anointing that effects a transformation of identity in someone. The second use of anointing with oil is connected to the identification of Jesus as the Christed or anointed One, and is linked to the Church’s ongoing use of chrism. On the other hand, the oil of healing emerges from the term for the pouring out of oil, as seen in James 5 and in Mark 6:13 (“So they [the apostles] went out and preached that all should repent. And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many that were sick and healed them.”) Culturally, especially in the climates around the Mediterranean Sea where Christianity was born, the natural healing properties of oil as an external unguent on the skin and on injuries, as well as the internal use of oil added as a medication or supplement to the diet, had already been well-recognized as an agent of healing long before the Christian adaptation of oil in sacramental practice.[4]

From here the Church begins a long history of setting olive oil aside through an episcopal blessing so that it is recognized as both effecting a strengthening of the individual and being an action of the whole Church, because the bishop was the primary ecclesial symbol of the Church’s unity. This oil is described in numerous stories throughout the first millennium of Christianity as being used by any of the baptized on any of the baptized as long as it was “confected” by the bishop.[5] The key is to distinguish between the healing by a charismatic individual, a tradition already evident in the Apostle Paul’s writing, and the healing office of the Church with its sacramental efficacy, regardless of who was doing the anointing.

In the ninth to eleventh centuries, the specific task of spiritual healing (forgiveness of sins) began to supersede that of all other healings, particularly physical healing.

The healing described in the letter of James is holistic: those who are sick will be healed and their sins will be forgiven. James makes clear that health—wholeness—is about strengthening and enabling the sick to cope with the ramifications of illness, whether these be physical or spiritual. Throughout medieval Western church developments, anointing was part of a larger set of practices which gradually grew more and more elaborate, and included the laying on of hands, communion, psalms, and scripture readings. In the ninth to eleventh centuries, the specific task of spiritual healing (forgiveness of sins) began to supersede that of all other healings, particularly physical healing. As this sacramental emphasis mixed with the changes in the sacrament of reconciliation, the anointing with oil became not so much a holistic and physical healing but a spiritual healing at the end of life. It became a sacrament of the dying. Scholastic theologians placed viaticum (one’s last communion) at the center of the final rites for the dying. These rites were re-ordered so that the anointing came last, in extremis, hence the term “extreme unction.” In Roman Catholic tradition this sacramental practice endured until the 1970s when the rite was reformed after the Second Vatican Council.

The return to a sacramental rite for the sick—and a holistic healing that points to the reign of God—has emerged over the past fifty years in many ecumenical circles. There was, for example, some thinking in Anglicanism along these lines at the beginning of the twentieth century, as a counter to the rise in spiritualism and various practices denying the importance of the Incarnation.[6] But official rituals emerged primarily from the work of Vatican II:

“Extreme unction,” which may also and more fittingly be called “anointing of the sick,” is not a sacrament for those only who are at the point of death. Hence, as soon as any one of the faithful begins to be in danger of death from sickness or old age, the fitting time for him to receive this sacrament has certainly already arrived.[7]

The sick exercise a ministry to the larger Church by their witness of faith in Christ.

As similar sets of rituals have emerged in different churches, several key theological ideas have been more clearly articulated in recent decades. The first is to clarify the difference between curing and healing. Physical illness may be healed, since all things are possible for God, but even if an immediate cure is not apparent to the human eye, a sacramental healing has occurred, since “sacraments always work.”[8] This points to an essential distinction between curing an illness and healing the whole person. The Church’s ministry to the sick is to strengthen and restore relationships with God, community, and self; to overcome isolation, give hope and strength, and to know oneself in the love and mercy of God. The sick exercise a ministry to the larger Church by their witness of faith in Christ. They bear this witness both through their participation in the life and the suffering of Christ, and by praying for others from that position of greater knowing in Christ. The second clarification is to reiterate the difference between charismatic healing—the gift of healing given to an individual directly by God—and the healing office of the Church. Ecclesial communities have recognized the authority to anoint the sick based on different interpretations of James, some limiting the ministry to those in holy orders (deacons and priests or priests alone), and others to any of the baptized with suitable preparation. Above all, the blessing of the oil by the bishop (usually at an annual Chrism Mass) remains important for the ecclesial nature of the ministry and its sacramental efficacy. Third, recent decades have seen a growing understanding of the complexity of the human person. Using the insights of Christian anthropology, humans are understood not simply as dualistic (body and spirit), but psycho-social-somatic-spiritual beings for whom healing may mean social, emotional, and mental healing as much as physical and spiritual healing. The result is seen in expanded language of prayer and more frequent opportunities for the anointing of the sick.

“Is anyone among you sick? He should summon the presbyters of the church, and they should pray over him and anoint with oil in the name of the Lord, and the prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up.”[9]

The Rev. Canon Lizette Larson-Miller, PhD, is the Huron-Lawson Professor of Liturgy at Huron University College (University of Western Ontario). She is the author of numerous articles and books on the study of sacramentality and sacraments, especially on the rites with the sick and the dying. Her most recent book was Sacramentality Renewed, published by Liturgical Press. In addition, she serves as the liturgical officer for the diocese of Huron (in the Anglican Church of Canada), as well as on the editorial board of several journals internationally.


[1] Unless otherwise noted, all quotations of scripture are taken from the New Revised Standard Version.

[2] See Godfrey Diekmann, “The Laying on of Hands: The Basic Sacramental Rite” CTSA Proceedings 29 (1974), 349–50.

[3] See J. Roy Porter, “Oil in the Old Testament” in The Oil of Gladness: Anointing in the Christian Tradition, ed. Martin Dudley & Geoffrey Rowell. (London: SPCK, 1993).

[4] Olive oil was a primary market commodity used for eating, drinking, light, healing, and more. For a spirituality based on all of these, see the beautiful hymns of Ephrem the Syrian, particularly his fourth hymn on Virginity (see Kathleen McVey, Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns (New York: Paulist Press, 1989).

[5] It was episcopal consecration that gave the “ecclesial virus” to the oil, making the anointing an action of the whole Church. That was the standard practice, but there are also examples in the first millennium of oil run through the tombs of martyrs and other saints as an alternative act of “consecration.”

[6] See Charles W. Gusmer, The Ministry of Healing in the Church of England, an Ecumenical-Liturgical Study. (Essex, Great Britain: The Alcuin Club, 1974) 10–20.

[7] Sacrosanctum Concilium 73,

[8] Thomas Talley, “Healing: Sacrament or Charism?” in Reforming Tradition (Washington, DC: The Pastoral Press, 1990), 49.

[9] James 5:14–15, New American Bible, Revised Edition (NABRE).

This material is licensed under an Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Recommended Citation: Larson-Miller, Lizette (2019): “The Church’s Work of Healing: Prayer, Laying on of Hands, and Anointing,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 5: No. 1, Article 6. Available at

“Can These Bones Live?” Dancing with Skeletons in Unlikely Ballrooms

[T]he Lord brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley. It was full of bones. He led me all round them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?”
Ezekiel 37:1-3, NRSV

Can these bones live? Susan asked this question when she told me about her cancer diagnosis. She didn’t quote Ezekiel, but her tears voiced a fear and longing captured in those biblical words. Can these bones live? Can my bones live?

Susan also asked me, her pastor at the time, to pray for her to be healed. Her prayer request and others like it haunt my ministry. What is healing? And what does prayer mean when illness wearies our bones and depletes our bodies? Or when we encounter wounds that no kiss or prayer is able to suture closed?

In Ezekiel 37, God’s Spirit leads Ezekiel through an ancient battleground filled with the bones of exiles who died fighting. I imagine some of the exiles in Ezekiel’s vision died fighting for something they believed in. Others may have fought out of loyalty to a leader, or perhaps they fought to survive. The valley is covered with their bones, and the bones are “very dry”; hope of life has been bleached out by the glare of a fierce sun.

Ezekiel’s dry bones battlefield is not unlike some contemporary geographies. All of us have fought or will at some time find ourselves fighting for our lives or, like Ezekiel, straining our eyes to see a glimmer of hope while looking out over dusty war zones covered with very dry bones.

Striking about Ezekiel’s vision is that God asks Ezekiel a question we most often hear ourselves asking God: “Can these bones live?” God asks Ezekiel and us, “Mortal—you  of the dust who will one day return to dust—what do you imagine is possible here in this place of dried-out bones?” Does God expect us to have an answer to this difficult question?

Photo by the author

For me, as a liturgical theologian, possible responses to these questions emerge from the realm of the sacramental imagination. What is the sacramental imagination? Theologian Mary Catherine Hilkert shares her insights in Naming Grace: Preaching and the Sacramental Imagination. A sacramental imagination, says Hilkert, sees God’s presence permeating all of creation and human lives.[1] Much as sacraments in Christian worship invite us to see God in the matter of our lives—in water, bread, and wine and in washing, eating, and drinking—a sacramental imagination is attuned to how God is present in every aspect of daily life.

Hilkert explores preaching as an act of naming the presence of God in human lives. In a similar way, worship also names God’s presence. Through the prayers of the people, we name God-with-us as we journey through life’s Edenic gardens and dry bones valleys. As we pass the peace, we offer to the wounds of our humanity God’s divine kiss of connectedness; God is present in our hands as we touch each other with welcome and care. As we break bread at the Lord’s table, we remember Jesus as bread-breaker and broken body; we also perform, in a sense, the horrific breaking of human hearts and bodies by contemporary injustices and remember the groans of our earth as she gives herself, moment by moment, to human flourishing.

At the table, we have a chance to encounter God-with-us in the marrow of our bones as the nutrients of that holy meal intermingle with and draw together ancient scars, today’s wounds and weariness, and yet-to-be-embodied possibilities. In worship, we have the chance to name God’s presence in our midst and to imagine what it means that everyday actions and people and places and things are awash and alive with holiness.

How do these sacramental actions in worship relate to Susan’s prayer request? Hilkert’s work is again helpful in crafting a response. She pairs with her insights about sacramental imagination a definition of “dialectical imagination”: “The dialectical imagination stresses the distance between God and humanity. . . and the not-yet character of the promised reign of God.”[2] Both imaginations—sacramental and dialectical—are present in Christian histories and theologies.

In worship, we have the chance to name God’s presence in our midst and to imagine what it means that everyday actions and people and places and things are awash and alive with holiness.

Both were also present in Susan’s prayer request. Even as she asked me to call upon God on her behalf, she expressed uncertainty about whether God cared about her or could hear her cries. This is part of the reality of what it means to be human and wrestle with faith. On the one hand, we delight that all that we see, hear, and touch in the material world has the potential to connect us to God. At the same time, we struggle to fathom how God is anywhere near those desolate places where blood from gunshots runs in the streets or where children are dying from abuse or neglect or where food and health care are not accessible to hurting communities.

When our bodies betray us or unending illness becomes a constant companion or we have to face the reality that whatever trauma we have experienced is not fading away with time, we can find ourselves staring across an abyss of separation from the one we call God. We can find ourselves in Ezekiel’s valley joining our voices to those of the house of Israel: “‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost.’” (37:11). How, when this happens, do we respond to God’s question to Ezekiel: “Mortal, can these bones live?”

Joel James Shuman and Keith G. Meador suggest in Heal Thyself: Spirituality, Medicine, and the Distortion of Christianity that in many North American contexts religion and medicine are viewed as a means for people to “attain the. . . desirable commodity that is individual health.”[3] For too many, religious beliefs and medical strategies focus on individualized diagnoses and cures that can be pursued as “goods” of the market.

Health, write Shuman and Meador, “is nothing less than the entirety of our day-to-day flourishing as contingent beings in a contingent world.” Health has to do “not just with the physical well-being of our individual bodies but also with the integrity of our being before God, our being with others, and our being with the world.”[4] When we rely solely on medical remedies to restore individual health, we risk becoming disconnected from relational sources of well-being that settle our hearts and calm our spirits when no cure can be found for whatever disease afflicts us.

Theologian Shelly Rambo offers related insights in Resurrecting Wounds: Living in the Afterlife of Trauma. The contemporary prevalence of trauma, she says, requires us to recognize that “death and life are coterminous rather than sequential, entangled rather than clearly delineated.” A resurrected Jesus who returns to life with the trauma of death still etched in his hands, feet, and side, invites us to see our lives as “marked by wounds and yet recreated through them.”[5]

I wonder: Can we think of sacramental and dialectical imaginations as also entangled or interwoven? What if we imagine healing not as a victory to be claimed once a wound has been sutured up but as a momentary glimpse of divine grace that we touch and taste and see when we bless and eat the broken bread at the Lord’s table? What if we imagine healing as work we do alongside others each day to become more aware of how God’s grace is with us in places where God seems most absent? What if we imagine healing as encounters with the Balm of Gilead given to us when we share a meal with friends, or when we taste springtime in winter air—when we encounter, as Rambo puts it, “life resurrecting amid the ongoingness of death”?[6]

What if we imagine healing not as a victory to be claimed once a wound has been sutured up but as a momentary glimpse of divine grace?

Ezekiel prophesies to the marrow-emptied bones of those who had been slain, who once “lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude” (37:10). Sacramental and dialectical imaginations intermingle as God imagines with Ezekiel the possibility of life rattling, clattering, even dancing up out of that Valley of the “ongoingness of death.”

In a sense, worship invites us to imagine with God each time we gather around the Lord’s Table. What are we to imagine? Possibilities of life in the midst of death, hope in the midst of despair. Then, with grace-filled possibilities breathed into our hearts and minds, worship dares us to imagine God’s Spirit infusing our very bones with new life. Worship dares us to hold mysteries of divine grace in our hands and taste mysteries of divine healing on our tongue, in bread and wine. Worship dares us to give voice to our lament and then to imagine God incarnate in the sinews and flesh of our human bodies. Then, in and through us, through our prayers and in our actions, sacramental and dialectical imaginations intertwine, and God’s Spirit is yet again set loose in our midst to breathe life over whatever is dried out and lifeless in our communities and neighborhoods.

Two years ago, on the first Sunday in Advent, some children in my church bedazzled my dialectical and sacramental imaginations. As the prelude began that Sunday, with no liturgical prompting, first one child, then two, then one more made their way to the front of the church and began to dance to the notes of the prelude.

I had arrived at church reluctant to begin another Advent season. My awareness of racism, violence, food insecurity, political unrest—so many painful realities that people face every day—made me resistant to singing hymns of waiting. Too many people have waited too long for healing to come their way.

Then those children began to dance in front of the communion table. Their unrehearsed joy reached out into the sanctuary and, for a moment at least, quieted my restless spirit. In that moment, dry bones were touched by the healing breezes of God’s Spirit-Breath. Sacramental and dialectical imaginations joined hands in an awkward but life-sustaining dance.

I was restless with impatience for Gospel justice to come, for God to intervene and restore God’s weary people. Those children invited me to imagine anew the meaning of God-with-us. Perhaps the sacred Star-flinger who in the beginning sequined the skies with light sows stars into hungry and thirsty wildernesses each day by infusing our weary bones with energy enough to dance light and life resurrecting in the face of death—even when we do not think we have rhythm or energy to dance at all.

My prayer today is that as those children grow up into their lives they remember the spontaneity and joy that infused their bones when they danced and prepared our community—hearts, minds, and bodies—to take up one more Advent journey.

advent prelude

december sun puddled on the sanctuary carpet.
splashing in the light, they swirled, twirled,
danced while people settled into empty pews.

child poet-prophets, eight years, five, only three,
they swayed, tender trees seeking, reaching,
spilling morning gold from their hands,

unrehearsed, as far as we knew, and unplanned
except perhaps by angels, if you believe in such things.
we heavy-footed grownups beheld them, wondering.

and they danced on, in the light,
in front of the remembrance table where
bread is broken, baptismal promises spoken and where

on that day? innocent joy
graced wilderness-weary waiting eyes
with a wreath of swirling, spinning stars.

the music stopped, and they scampered
away down the aisle. I rubbed my eyes—yes.
their feet left a trail of stardust.

the way was prepared.

Jill Y. Crainshaw is Blackburn Professor of Worship and Liturgical Theology at Wake Forest University School of Divinity and an ordained teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Her writing and teaching emphasize how Christian worship and leadership arise from and return to human experience. Her newest book, When I in Awesome Wonder: Liturgy Distilled from Everyday Life (The Liturgical Press, 2017), explores how worship’s sacramental elements such as bread, wine, and water are connected to local fields and farmers, waters and artisans. Crainshaw’s first poetry chapbook, Cedars in Snowy Places (Library Partners Press, 2018), was published last fall.

[1]See Mary Catherine Hilkert, Naming Grace: Preaching and the Sacramental Imagination (New York: The Continuum Publishing Co., 1997).

[2]Ibid., 15.

[3]Joel James Shuman and Keith G. Meador, Heal Thyself: Spirituality, Medicine, and the Distortion of Christianity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 6.

[4]Ibid., 12.

[5]Shelly Rambo, Resurrecting Wounds: Living in the Afterlife of Trauma (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2007), 7.


This material is licensed under an Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Recommended Citation: Crainshaw, Jill Y. (2019): “’Can These Bones Live?’ Dancing with Skeletons in Unlikely Ballrooms,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 5: No. 1, Article 7. Available at