Continuing in our series on the sanctification of life, and in particular that second group of sacraments, the sacraments of healing, and having discussed the sacrament of repentance, we now move to the sacrament of holy oil or holy unction. I’d like to read what Fr. Alexander says about this sacrament of the Church and then to read a few excerpts from the service itself. Fr. Alexander begins his commentary in the book Liturgy and Life:
How are we to understand that mysterious sacrament of holy oil? Man is a suffering being. Each one of us has visited a hospital. Each one of us, and especially the priest when he enters the hospital, knows that our world, beneath its optimistic façade, is a world of pain and suffering. We often try to forget about it, to live in a world as if there were no suffering or no death in it.
On the pages of our magazines we find pictures of glorious he-men and she-women, of their wonderful bodies and the whole picture of the world that is of complete well-being. Yet everyone knows that real life is better revealed in a hospital and that suffering is its unavoidable expression. The same man who was so young and happy and whose beauty impressed us in that photograph is now here struggling with pain, despair, death. It’s the magazine that lies, and it’s the hospital that is true and real. For suffering awaits all of us, sooner or later, and makes all of us united in the definition of man as a suffering being.
Therefore the sacrament of healing, the divine answer to human suffering, is not something for the priest alone to care for. It’s a fundamental task of the entire Church. Christ spent so much of his time with those who suffered, who were brought to him sick and maimed and in pain, for it is to heal man that he came, to liberate him from his enslavement to sin and suffering.
It would be a mistake, however, to understand the sacrament of healing as performing miracles. We do not, to be sure, deny the possibility of miracles, but when God wants to perform a miracle, he does perform it, but even Christ, when a suffering man was brought to him, usually said, “Thy sins are forgiven,” and only then healed him. Why? Because physical healing alone is, of necessity, a temporary one. In this world, there can be no total and permanent healing.
Therefore, in order to understand the Christian idea of healing, one must think again in terms of transformation. Let us take for an example two men in the same hospital room and dying from the same mortal disease. For one of them, this terrible suffering and this dying may be and very often is his ultimate defeat and the final surrender to darkness, yet to the other man, just the opposite may happen. The same pain and suffering may make him begin to understand the meaning of life. As long as he was happy, driving his Cadillac, smoking his cigars, eating steaks, getting more money, having women, etc., he never thought about God, never. Life was fun, plenty of fun, and now God has visited him. This is how in the past Christians used to call sickness: “visitation.”
What we have to understand in other terms is that we’re spiritually so weak, so materialistically minded, so deeply alienated from the life of spirit, that there’s no way for God to reveal to us what true life is than by taking away from us this superficial and meaningless life of fun. Thus, suffering can be a victory, a real transformation of man, and as every priest can witness, it’s in suffering that sometimes one can see the beauty of the spiritual birth of a man’s return to the spiritual reality in which he was created.
Such is the purpose of the sacrament of healing, reading the prayers and the lessons of which it consists. When we read them, what we pray is for genuine healing, a total restoration of the man whom God has visited, and who therefore is made whole again, for he is in communion with God. This is the real victory and the real transformation. We know that in this world it can never become a world without suffering, without sickness, without hospitals, but what we also know is what Christ tells us, that even suffering can become a victory of God.
For Christ died, and therefore death is transformed. Christ suffered, and therefore suffering is transformed. Christ lives, and therefore life is transformed. Thus, what is given to a man in the sacrament of oil is precisely the possibility of victory, through the one who loves you more than anyone else can ever love you, who in his love is now suffering with you so as to overcome the power of suffering. Our Christian life must be a constant transformation of defeat into victory. If this is true, then the sacrament of healing is indeed an essential sacrament of the Church.
Let’s take a look at a few of the passages in the sacrament of holy oil. Most of us who are Orthodox Christians living in the liturgical life of the Church experience this sacrament and participate in this sacrament during Holy Week on Wednesday evening of Great and Holy Wednesday. This is a long service. We don’t have time in a short podcast like this to go through all of these prayers, but let me just read a few things to you. First, the prayer of the blessing of the oil. The priest says:
O Lord, who through thy mercies and bounties healest the disorders of our souls and bodies, do thou thyself, O Master, also sanctify this oil, that it may be effectual for those who are anointed therewith, unto healing and unto relief from every passion and defilement of flesh and spirit and every ill, and that thereby that they glorify thine all-holy name, of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.
Then after another series of prayers of invocation, we come to a series of seven epistle and Gospel lessons and seven prayers. I’d like to read for you just the first epistle and Gospel lesson to give the biblical context for the practice of anointing with oil. It comes from the general epistle of St. James 5:10-16.
Brethren, take as an example of suffering and patience the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Behold, we call those happy who were steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful. But above all, my brethren, do not swear either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath, but let your yes be yes and your no be no, that you may not fall under condemnation.
Is there anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is any cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord, and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up. If he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed, for the prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects.
Then we move to the Gospel lesson, which is the story of the Good Samaritan, taken from Luke10:25-37.
At that time, a lawyer stood up to put Jesus to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? How do you read?” And the lawyer answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And Jesus said to him, “You have answered right. Do this, and you will live.” But the lawyer, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” And Jesus replied:
“A man was going from Jerusalem down to Jericho, and he fell among robbers who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite, and when he came to the place and saw him, passed on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion on him and went to him and bound up his wounds and poured on oil and wine. He set him on his own beast and brought him to an inn and took care of him.
“The next day he took out two denarii and gave it to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three do you think proved neighbor to the man who fell among robbers?”
And the lawyer said, “The one who showed mercy on him.” And Jesus said to him, “Go, and do likewise.”
After completing this series of seven epistles and Gospels and seven prayers, we finally come towards the end of the service to the prayer with the Gospel book, and the priest takes the Gospel book, and he holds it open with the text facing down, raised above the heads of those who kneel under it. He recites this prayer aloud:
O holy King, compassionate and multi-merciful Lord Jesus Christ, Son and Word of the living God, who desirest not the death of the sinner, but that he should be converted and live, I lay not my sinful hand upon the heads of those who approach thee in sins and entreat of thee through us remission of their sins, but thy strong and mighty hand which is in this holy Gospel which I hold upon the heads of these thy servants, and I pray and entreat thy merciful and evil-forgetting love of mankind, O God our Savior, who through thy prophet Nathan did grant remission unto David when he repented of his iniquities, and didst accept Manasses’ prayer of penitence, do thou also with thy wonted love for man, these thy servants who repent from their iniquities, overlooking all their transgressions, for thou art our God who hast bidden us to forgive those who fall into sin, even unto seventy times seven, for as is thy mystery, so also is thy mercy, and unto thee are due all glory, honor, and worship, of thine unoriginate Father and thine all-holy, good, and life-giving Spirit, now and forever and unto ages of ages. Amen.
With that the faithful come forward to receive this mystery of anointing, and the priest, as he anoints them on the forehead, the cheeks, the chin, the hands, says:
The blessing of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, for the healing of soul and body of the servant of God, always, now and forever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.
All of us, I think, whether [or not] we’re sick in our body, sick to the point of despair and anxiety, wanting to call the priest for help, we can look inside of ourselves and we can see that we’re sick in our souls as well as our bodies. This sacrament of holy oil is not only for the miracle of health, but it is for the forgiveness of sins and restoration of the health of the soul as well as the body. When we feel that sickness growing inside of us, let us not forsake the material and physical means in the Church by which the Lord wishes to grant us his mercy, eleos, oil—it’s basically the same word.
Let’s come to the priest and ask him to anoint us, believing that God loves us and that our sins are simply an indication of our sickness and that God became a man and established his Church, not to condemn us but to set up a hospital, that we might be cleansed and healed as well as pardoned and forgiven of our sins. Amen.