The service of ‘Holy Unction’ is a most ancient service of the Orthodox Church. As a ‘mystery’ (or ‘sacrament’), it defines physical things and actions through which God gives his grace (his blessing) to those who are involved. This ‘giving’ by God is mystery because God works in a way that we cannot really explain or define.
The most important scriptural passage relates directly to Holy Unction and is found in the Holy Epistle of James the Apostle in the New Testament (James 5:14-16). In this reading, the apostle gives instructions for responding in a spiritual way to sickness. The Priesthood, a pray of faith and anointing with oil are shown as the fundamental parts of this Christian response. The results are equally fundamental: salvation, healing and forgiveness of sins. All these elements are clearly seen in the service of ‘Holy Unction’.
The service of ‘Holy Unction’ is spiritual medicine for sickness which has at its heart a spiritual disease – our mortality which we inherit from the sin of the spiritually human nature that we all share. Sickness is not only physical and mental it is the result of the sinful nature we possess.
The service of Holy Unction’ is held in times of sickness and as a preparation for our celebration of the eternally salvific act of the death and Resurrection of our Lord at the time of Holy Week and Easter (Pascha). These show clearly that ‘Holy Unction’ is inextricably linked not only to actual sickness but to God forgiving us our sins. It is the response of the Tax Collector who enters the Temple to pray; he falls down upon his knees in humility, bows his head, beats his breast and says “Lord forgive me for I am a sinner” He repents by confessing his sins before God.
In its original form, seven priests were needed for the conducting of this service – a symbol of the completeness of the prayers of the Church. Over time, because of the difficulty in gathering seven priests together at one time, five, two, or even one priest would conduct the service.
The basic items of the service as it developed were:
* oil – the means through which God brings his blessing upon us;
* seven candles – the light of Christ in our midst;
* a bowl of flour - which would be kept after the service and from it would be baked a loaf of ‘Prosphora’ for use as the bread for the service of Holy Communion;
* the priest(s) – gathered together as vehicles of God’s grace and as ones who intercede for the people, asking God to bless and lift up him who is need before God;
* the readings and the prayers – a service of listening to God, preparation for the grace which God gives to us and our response to him, in humility, faith and expectation.
* the blessing and anointing with oil – literally God ‘blessing us’.
In some Christian groups the service of Holy Unction is reserved only for those who are dying or who are in danger of death. For other groups, ‘anointing with oil’ is only a symbol of our prayer to God for healing. However, for the Orthodox, Holy Unction is a physical celebration of the grace of God as it related to our constant walk through this life – our journey of faith. It is truly a ‘mystery’ of the faith because through it God works within us – healing, raising up, strengthening, blessing and bringing us to eternal life.
The service of ‘Holy Unction’ is an action by God who, using things created, brings us his blessing. This sacrament is also our prayer to God; we approach God in humility and faith, relying upon His love for us. God hears our prayer and, like in the story of the Good Samaritan (Gospel of Luke 10:30-37), God finds us lying by the roadside, beaten and injured by the troubles and blows of this life. He pours his healing love upon us and bandages our broken body and soul. He lifts us up and cares for us. He brings us back to health in his presence and restores us to life once again.
Rev. Timothy Evangelinides
Parish Priest of St. George - Hobart (TAS)