The Service of Holy Unction

In receiving the sacrament of Holy Unction on this, the eve of Holy Thursday, we do much more than petition God to heal us of body and soul that we may enjoy the good things of this worldly life. We are beseeching him to heal us of body and soul in such a way that the vesture of our soul will be enlightened and that our body will be raised up in spiritual wholeness that we may walk in his ways, that we may eat the words of his teaching which are sweeter than honey and be nourished in the life of his Holy Spirit.

Holy Unction is a sacrament, and so it is given only to the faithful, to those who have been received into the Orthodox Church through confession, baptism and chrismation, and who, we should add, have themselves received the faith of the Orthodox Church through the sacrament of confession. Holy Unction is a sacrament of healing; as the priest says when he applies the unction, “The child of God is anointed unto the healing of soul and body.”

Now, we know that God’s goodness shines on the just and the unjust; that he heals even those who do not worship him. He healed, for example, even the nine lepers who did not return to him in Eucharist, in gratitude, but went their own way. Last September, I was privileged to venerate the relics of King St Stephan of Kosovo at Visoki Decani monastery when I visited the Balkans. The abbot of the monastery told us that both Muslims and Christians come to venerate the relics of King St Stephan, and that both Muslims and Christians report healing from the saint. So, we know that the grace of God is poured out on all, whether Christian or not. Why, then, is Holy Unction, since it, too, is a sacrament of healing, not given freely to all? Why is it given only to the faithful? I’m not sure I can answer that, but the question drives us to consider the meaning of the sacrament, so that even if we can’t answer that particular question to everyone’s satisfaction, at least it will serve the purpose of leading us into a reflection that deepens our appreciation of the sacrament. 

In the Church, oil is used not only for the sacrament of Holy Unction but also for the sacraments of Baptism and Chrismation, which are the sacraments of initiation when one is united to a death like Christ’s and so also to a resurrection like his. This tells us at once that as a sacrament, Holy Unction is received, as is the Holy Eucharist, in the sacramental life of the Church, which is the life of the crucified and risen Lord. It is received, then, by those who have crucified themselves with Christ and who have died to the world: i.e., to the lusts and pleasures of the flesh and to the pride of this worldly life. As a sacrament, then, Holy Unction is received not on this side of the grave – which for the one who has confessed Jesus Christ is the baptismal font – it is received not in the life of this world, but on the other side of the grave, in the life of the risen Lord into which those are born who through the sacrament of baptism have been clothed with the robe of light, the wedding garment, and who through the sacrament of Chrismation have received the life of the Spirit who is in the Lord Jesus, the Word of God, and which is the Light of the Lord that enlightens everyone who comes into the world of the Spirit – as the holy fathers teach us who comment on this passage from St. John’s Gospel. 

 Note that this sacramental life of the Holy Spirit, the spiritual life of the risen Lord, is given to those who receive it. To receive the risen life of the Lord, one must believe in the Lord; but to believe in the Lord means to follow the Lord. That means to practice his commandments to repent – i.e., to turn one’s mind away from the wisdom of one’s own opinions in order to receive instruction from the Wisdom of God that is the Lord Jesus himself – and to take up one’s cross in order to follow Christ. In the sacramental structure of the Church, we take up our cross pre-eminently through the sacrament of confession. Before one is allowed to approach the baptismal font or is received into the Church from some other christian religion through chrismation, one is brought to the confession. It is through the sacrament of confession that everyone who comes into the Church makes oneself ready to receive the life of Christ through the sacraments of baptism and chrismation.

In the sacrament of confession, we do three things: i) we confess the holy Orthodox Faith that has been given to us by the holy apostles on the foundation of the prophets, whose chief cornerstone is Christ Jesus, God the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us; ii) we give thanks to God for his great goodness and his great love out of which he sent his only-begotten Son into the world that whoever believes in him, whoever receives him might be saved, might be healed in body and soul, as were the ten lepers; and iii) we acknowledge our sins and our impurities, our sickness in sin that is unto death. We confess our sins to him who is faithful and just to forgive us our sins. In so doing, we affirm that the word of God is true, which has said that we all have sinned; we have every one gone our own way. Therefore, we can say that it is our confession that renders all the other sacraments of the Church effective because it is through confession that we open our hearts, the bridal chamber, to the Lord so that he is able to come in and cleanse us from all our unrighteousness and make us clean and beautiful, anoint our face with the oil of gladness, clothe us with the wedding garment,  and bring us to the marriage feast of the lamb and his bride and give to us the cup of life, the holy chalice that we may become communicants of life eternal, partakers of the divine nature. For, the Lord won’t come into our hearts if we don’t want him to. He won’t force himself on us. We must freely receive him; but to as many as receive him, to them he gives the power to become children of God, born not of the will or desire of the flesh but of the Spirit of God. 

Freely choosing to take up our cross and follow Christ as the Israelites followed Moses, we pass through the waters of our baptism as the Israelites passed through the Red Sea. We are delivered from our enslavement to the passions as the Israelites were freed from their bondage to Pharaoh. Having been baptized into the Church, the body of Christ, the fullness of him who is all in all, we find ourselves on the far shore in the wilderness on our way to the Kingdom of Heaven with the risen Christ as the Israelites were on their way to the Promised Land with Moses. We are in the wilderness, now. We are still in this life, but we have been united with Christ who by his death and resurrection has made the desert of this life to rejoice and to blossom as the rose. We are now strangers and exiles on the earth, pilgrims scattered throughout this worldly desert but united together in the one Holy Spirit, following the one Lord Jesus Christ to our true home, the Heavenly Kingdom of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. In the wilderness, we are in Christ, we are not in the passions that make us sick and lead us to death. In the wilderness of the Church that has been made to rejoice and blossom as the rose, we receive the sacraments of the Church, the life of God’s heavenly Spirit, both as a means of spiritual nourishment to sustain us and help us on our earthly pilgrimage and as a taste of the Kingdom which is to come. 

The sacramental life of the Church, then, is eschatological; it is of the Last Day. In confession, baptism and chrismation, those who have received Christ have entered into the eschatological mystery revealed in Genesis 1 through the Holy Spirit of Christ. They experience this life in Christ’s crucifixion and burial as Holy Friday and Holy Saturday, the Last Day of creation; but in Christ’s holy resurrection, they experience the dawning in this life of the First Day of the new creation. It is in this eschatological reality of the Church that the sacrament of Holy Unction is received by the faithful. 

In the sacrament of Holy Unction, we use oil mixed with wine. This is what distinguishes the oil of Holy Unction from the oil with which we are anointed in preparation for Baptism, and the chrism with which we are anointed in Holy Chrismation. This gives to the sacrament of Holy Unction its own unique eschatological quality for in Holy Scripture, oil and wine together are signs of the Last Day, the Eschaton. Receiving Holy Unction is a witness to us while we are yet here in the wilderness of this worldly life bounded on all sides by death that we have entered through our death in Christ in Holy Baptism into the eschatological life of Christ’s holy resurrection, and that we are now in the wilderness that Christ makes to rejoice and to blossom as the rose on our spiritual pilgrimage to the Kingdom of Heaven. 

In Holy Scripture, oil and wine together are used to heal all kinds of maladies. But the chief biblical referent in this service of Holy Unction is the story of the Good Samaritan, which is a parable of dying and rising in Christ in his holy Church, the “inn”, where we are tended to until his Second Coming. In the prophets Jeremiah (31:2), Joel (2:24) and Hosea (2:22), oil and wine are signs of the restoration of Israel after God’s eschatological judgment against her and the nations. But again, in the vision of the Church, the eschatological judgment against the world is revealed to be the Cross of Christ, on which God the Word, according to St Paul the apostle and Isaiah the prophet, submits in obedience to the Father even to the point of death on the Cross, that he might make the iniquity of us all to fall upon himself so that we might be saved, so that even those who before were not chosen or elect of God will hear God say to them: “You are my people,” and they will say, “You are my God” (Hos 2:23). This we take as a prophecy of the Cross of Christ which has opened the Church of God’s Elect to all those, both Jews and Gentiles, who will receive him. 

But what I find even more compelling is the use in Holy Scripture of oil and wine as an expression of festive joy and as preparation for the wedding feast of the King’s Son and his bride (Ps 45). Indeed, where there is sorrow, anointing with oil and wine is suspended. In this light, look again at Mary Magdalene loosening her hair and anointing the feet of Jesus, even as she weeps. The Lord says she is preparing his body for burial; but the act of loosening her hair and anointing his feet with oil, both of which carry nuptial overtones and are associated with joy, show us that much more is happening beneath the surface of the Lord’s Crucifixion.

The unenlightened see the Passion of Christ and focus on his agony and suffering. Certainly there is that, but clearly, that the Church is anointing us with oil and wine on this the eve of Holy Thursday, as Mary Magdalene loosens her hair and anoints the feet of Jesus before his death, tells us that the Church is calling us to look much deeper, to the spiritual plane, because she is preparing us for the joy of a marriage feast, leading us to look on the mystery of Christ’s agony on the Cross as the consummation of his becoming one with us in all things except for sin, that he might deliver us from sin and its fruit, death. The Church, then, in this service of Holy Unction is showing us what the Cross is all about: it is about the triumph of God over his foes, his trampling down death by his death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life – the life not of this world but of the Spirit of God. The crucifixion of God is the victory of God over death because it is not the act of greed and self-will as was the act of Adam and Eve in the Garden; it is the act of self-giving love of Christ, the Second Adam, and his holy Bride and Mother, the Theotokos, the Second Eve, the Church.

In receiving the sacrament of Holy Unction on this, the eve of Holy Thursday, we do much more than petition God to heal us of body and soul that we may enjoy the good things of this worldly life. We are beseeching him to heal us of body and soul in such a way that the vesture of our soul will be enlightened and that our body will be raised up in spiritual wholeness that we may walk in his ways, that we may eat the words of his teaching which are sweeter than honey and be nourished in the life of his Holy Spirit. We are therefore asking the Lord to do for us whatever he sees that we need that we might be healed in such a way that we might live in the life of the Eschaton. If that means healing us of particular physical or psychic maladies here and now, then thanks be to God; but, if it means that our maladies remain, then we will accept that, too, as God’s will for us, understanding that God is calling us to take up our maladies as our cross, and so transforming them into an opportunity for us to practice obedience to his command to take up our cross and follow him; that we may learn in a much deeper way to despise the pleasures of this life that only bring pain and death and to live our life as strangers and aliens on the earth, giving our love to the Bridegroom who comes at Midnight to give us himself, to make us one with him in the partaking of his divine nature, the medicine of immortality, that we may taste even here in our present afflictions how good the Lord is, and that we may live not for this life but for the life of the world to come in his Heavenly Spirit whom we have received even here and now, in whatever maladroit circumstance or affliction we may find ourselves, in the sacraments of his Holy Church. The sacrament of Holy Unction, is given only to the faithful then; not to all ten lepers but to the one leper who comes to Jesus in Thanksgiving, or in the way of the Eucharist, which is the way of confession, of baptism and chrismation. In other words, it is given to those who receive the call of Christ to take up their Cross; for in receiving the sacrament of Holy Unction, we are in effect receiving the call to take up our Cross and follow Christ, to accept whatever comes our way as the cross that God himself is giving us, and to accept that call of the Lord cannot be forced on anyone if it is to be given and received in love. It must be freely received out of a love for the Bridegroom that comes from the bridal chamber of the heart.


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