Originally published in the November, 2014 edition of The Word
Healing lies at the very center of the Church’s ministry. Even a quick review of Scripture and early Christian writings makes this clear, and there is no rite or sacrament which does not contain some reference to healing. We have but to listen to the Sunday gospel readings or hear the words of liturgical prayers to realize just how frequently the theme recurs. Thus the specific rite of healing, the “Anointing of the Sick,” is but one small aspect of this ministry.
The very purpose of the Church is to heal us, to overcome the rift between God and humanity which is caused by our sin and leads to death. This is achieved precisely when we are united to one another and to God in the Body of Christ, which is the Church. In His high-priestly prayer, our Lord prays for all His followers,
That they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You have sent Me. The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one even as We are one, I in them and You in Me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that You have sent Me and have loved them even as You have loved Me (John 17:21–23).
Jesus Christ is here asking for nothing less than the healing of the whole world, all humanity, all creation.
This is achieved for us when we come to know Christ, when we become one with Him and with one another. Everything that the Church does, all its sacramental and liturgical life, all its teaching, is directed at restoring the proper relationship between God and creation, which has been corrupted through our sinfulness. This is the real meaning of Christian healing, and it involves the whole person. The locus of this healing ministry is the Church’s sacraments, and particularly in its rites of initiation, Baptism/Chrismation, and in the Eucharist.
In Baptism, Christians abandon their old life, in which they were under the sway of sin and death, and enter into a new life, where sin and death have been defeated. In Baptism, we enter into a new relationship with God, with Christ, in which sin, sickness, and death no longer dominate. We become children of God, heirs of the Kingdom, members of Christ’s body, the Church. This new relationship is to endure forever, and neither sickness nor death can destroy it. Baptism, therefore, is the sacrament of healing par excellence, a healing aimed at the whole person, body, soul, and spirit.
Baptism, therefore, is the paradigmatic healing sacrament. Fallen humanity is recreated; our sins are forgiven; the image of God in us is restored; real, intimate communion with God, destroyed because of sin, is again made possible. The sickness and death which once ruled our lives are defeated, in the sense that they, just like the cross, become a means of victory and a passage into the Kingdom. The brokenness of our human existence is abolished as we are incorporated into the Church, the Body of Christ, through which we are saved. We are no longer left to live out our lives alone, to suffer and die a meaningless death. Rather, in the Church, our suffering and death become a means to victory, following in the footsteps of Christ, His death on the cross and His resurrection. Through Baptism, we are healed, and we are charged to bring this healing ministry to the world around us: to our family, to our neighbor, to all whom we encounter.
While Baptism and Chrismation are the means by which we become members of the Church, the Body of Christ, the Eucharist is the means by which this membership is realized and continues to be lived out. In fact, all the sacraments of the Church, as well as the daily and weekly cycles of prayer, have the Eucharist as their goal. We are the Church precisely when we gather together, Sunday after Sunday, to celebrate the mystery of Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection on our behalf. In the Eucharist, we not only remember these events, but we become partakers of Christ, sharing in His divine nature “for the healing of soul and body.” It is precisely in the Eucharist that the famous fourth-century dictum of St. Athanasius is realized: “God became man, so that man might become god.” This is the basis for the Orthodox teaching about divinization, or theosis.
Humanity is created to be in communion with God, and the Eucharist is the realization of this communion. True healing is precisely the restoration of communion with God, the restoration of the proper relationship between God and humanity. Every time that we receive communion, we receive this grace of healing. As with Baptism, this healing affects the entire person, with salvation, our entrance into the Kingdom, as its ultimate goal.