Holy Unction is the Church’s Mystery of physical and spiritual healing for Orthodox Christians. It is also called euchelaeon, a transliteration of the Greek ευχέλαιον, and stands for “blessed oil” (ευχή = blessing prayer, έλαιον = oil). Healing was part of the Lord Jesus Christ’s ministry as the Messiah, through which He proved He was fully man and fully God. The Church, as the Body of Christ and His active presence in this world, continues this ministry through the Mystery of Holy Unction: sacramental anointing with blessed oil and prayer.
Holy Unction in the Scriptures
We see clearly in Scripture that Christ and His Apostles practiced Holy Unction. On the Lord’s orders, the Apostles “anointed many sick people with oil and healed them” (Mark 6:13). Moreover, we see these instructions from Saint James, the Brother of the Lord: “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call the presbyters of the Church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. And if he has sinned, he will be forgiven” (James 5:14-15).
In ancient Christian literature, we find testimonies of the Mystery of Unction in Saint Irenaeus of Lyons and in Origen. Later there are clear references to it in the writings of Saints Basil the Great, Cyril of Alexandria, and John Chrysostom, who left prayers for the healing of the infirm which entered later into the rite of Unction. In the fifth century, Pope Innocent I answered a series of questions concerning Holy Unction, indicating that it:
- Should be performed “upon believers who are sick”
- May be performed by a bishop, since the words of the Apostle do not exclude bishops from participating
- May not be performed “on those undergoing ecclesiastical penance,’ because it is a “Mystery,’ and to those who are forbidden the other Mysteries, how can one allow only one?
The purpose of Holy Unction
Healing and forgiveness are the purpose of Holy Unction in the Orthodox Church. Because of mankind’s fall into sin, illness, pain, and death entered the world. We lost our organic connection with the source of our being and life: God. And without this vital connection, we become enslaved to death and decay. Through His salvific work on the cross, Our Lord Jesus Christ restores this break in communion. Through forgiveness and healing, we can once again draw near to God and become partakers of the divine nature. Holy Unction is one such way to receive that healing and forgiveness from Christ.
The blessed oil carries God’s grace both to renew the body and to cleanse the spirit.
The sacrament of anointing is a “sobornal” sacrament in the traditional Orthodox practice. This means that as many of the faithful as possible gather to participate in the prayers. The rite calls for seven priests, seven epistle and gospel readings, seven prayers and seven anointings with oil specifically blessed for the service. Although it is not always possible to do this, churches continue to gather as many priests and people as possible.
Below is the order of the Service of Holy Unction:
- Introductory Prayers and Psalms (143 & 51)
- The canon. Series of chanted/sung verses in which we ask God to show mercy upon us and cleanse our souls and to grant us the healing of our souls and bodies.
- Troparia to the Saints. We pray to the Saints, especially those who have helped the sick and suffering:
- Epistle and Gospel Lessons and Prayers (seven sets):
Olive oil and mercy
In New Testament Greek, there is a play on words between olive oil (elaion) and mercy (eleos), which sound incredibly similar. Thus, oil and mercy are often synonymous in the life of the Church.
During the service, the priest blesses olive oil, which he will later use to anoint the sick. Olive oil is a natural sign of healing and forgiveness, which are acts of God’s mercy. A little wine is mixed in the oil, the same way the Good Samaritan poured wine and oil on the injuries of the wounded stranger (Luke 10:34). The priest also lays the open Gospel book over the heads of the sick, as a sign of Christ touching them with His healing hand through his Body, the Church.
Does it really heal people?
If someone’s faith is strong enough, and if it is God’s will, there is every reason to believe the Lord can heal the sick through Holy Unction. In God’s inscrutable wisdom, it may not be His will that physical healing always take place; sometimes bearing the cross of illness is the only thing that makes us realize our frailty without Him and humbles us into repentance and spiritual growth. In such cases, Holy Unction gives us the benefit of blessing our illnesses with His grace and giving us strength to bear such crosses by His power, so the suffering of our mortal bodies works for the good of our immortal souls (Romans 8:28). Through Holy Unction, the wounds of the flesh are consecrated and strength is given that our suffering may not be unto the death of our souls, but for eternal salvation.
It’s important to note that the Orthodox Church does not look down on the moral and reasonable use of medicine, medical treatment, and science. These are all products of human intelligence that God granted humankind. Many saints of the Church, like Cosmas and Damian of Mesopotamia and Anastasia the Great Martyr, were doctors and pharmacists who healed others with faith, prayer, and medicine. However, the Church has never forgotten that humans are psychosomatic beings – made up of both souls and bodies. In other words, what affects us spiritually affects us physically and vice versa. In light of this, Holy Unction is important for our health and wholeness.
For those near death
It is indeed the case that death inevitably comes for all of us. Thus, the healing of the sick is not itself a final goal. Rather, it is “instrumental,” in that it God gave it to us as a sign of His mercy and as a grace, giving us further opportunities to live for Him.
When a faithful Orthodox Christian is in the final moments of earthly life, the Church says special prayers for the separation of soul and body. Holy Unction is not the “last rites” as many believe; rather, it is the Sacrament of the spiritual, physical, and mental healing of a sick person, whatever the nature or the gravity of the illness may be.
For Orthodox Christians, Holy Unction is a biblical and Sacramental Mystery inherited from the Lord Jesus Christ and His Apostles. The Church has practiced it for nearly 2,000 years, with its original ancient focus on healing and forgiveness for the living, repeated as often as necessary. Understanding this, please avail yourself of this healing treasure of Christ’s one Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church for the good of your soul and body.
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