Holy unction is the Church’s holy mystery of physical and spiritual healing for Orthodox Christians. Healing was part of the Lord Jesus Christ’s ministry as the Messiah, by 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 holy mystery of 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).
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.
In the service of holy unction, we hear psalms, prayers, and hymns, along with seven readings from the Gospels and Epistles of the New Testament that focus on the theme of physical and spiritual healing:
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 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).
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 Orthodox Christians, holy unction is a biblical and sacramental mystery inherited from the Lord Jesus Christ and His Apostles. It has been practiced by the Church 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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