About the Sacrament of Holy Unction.
The essence of the mystery.
The Mystery of Unction is a sacred action in which, while the body is anointed with oil, the grace of God which heals infirmities of soul and body is called down upon a sick person (Orthodox Catechism, p 65). It is performed by a gathering of presbyters, ideally seven in number; however, it can be performed by a lesser number and even by a single priest.
The divine institution of the mystery.
Even in Old Testament times oil signified grace, joy, a softening, a bringing to life. Anointment of the sick with oil was done by the Apostles, as we read in the Evangelist Mark (6:13): They “anointed with oil many that were sick, and healed them.”
The clearest testimony of the Mystery of Unction is to be found in the Apostle James (5:14-15): “Is any sick among you? Let him call for the elders (presbyters) of the Church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him.” The Apostle speaks here not of a special “gift” of healing; rather he prescribes the sacred action in a definite form, which was to enter into the custom of the Church: the performance of it by the presbyters of the Church, prayers, anointment; and he joins to this, as its consequence, the easing of bodily illness and the forgiveness of sins.
One cannot understand the words of the Apostle James about anointment with oil as referring to a usual healing method of those times, since oil, with all its beneficial attributes, is not a means of healing against every disease. The Apostles did not introduce anything of themselves, but they taught only what the Lord Jesus Christ had commanded then, and what the Holy Spirit had inspired in them; and they called themselves not the “institutors” of the Mysteries of God, but only the “stewards” of the Mysteries and the “servants of Christ.” Consequently, Unction also, which is commanded here by the Apostle James, has a Divine institution.
In ancient Christian literature one may find indirect testimonies of the Mystery of Unction in St. Irenaeus of Lyons and in Origen. Later there are clear testimonies of it in Sts. Basil the Great and John Chrysostom, who have left prayers for the healing of the infirm which entered later into the rite of Unction; and likewise in St. Cyril of Alexandria. In the fifth century, Pope Innocent I answered a series of questions concerning the Mystery of Unction, indicating in his answers that: a) it should be performed “upon believers who are sick;” b) it may be performed also by a bishop, since one should not see in the words of the Apostle, “let him call for the presbytery,” any prohibition for a bishop to participate in the sacred action; c) this anointment 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?
This Mystery is performed on the sick who are capable of receiving it consciously and participating in prayer for themselves: however it may also be performed on children. The place of this sacred action may be either the church or the dwelling where the sick person is. The Mystery of Unction is usually preceded by Confession and is usually concluded with the Mystery of Communion.
The visible side of the Mystery comprises seven anointings of the sick person with oil by the participating priests in order; this is done in the form of a cross on the forehead, the nostrils, the cheeks, the lips, the chest, and both sides of the hands, accompanied by prayers and by the reading of specific passages in the Epistles and the Gospel. During the anointing itself, seven times this prayer is pronounced: “O holy Father, Physician of souls and bodies, who didst send Thine Only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, Who healeth every infirmity and delivereth from death: Heal also Thy servant (name),” and so forth.
The rite of Unction begins with the singing of troparia and a canon; the final prayer in the rite is a prayer of remission of sins. A whole assembly of servants of the Lord stand before Him on behalf of the sick person, and by the prayer of faith on behalf of the whole Church entreats Him, the Most Merciful One, to grant to the infirm one the remission of transgressions and to purify his conscience from every defilement. There is also kept in mind the fact that a person who has grown weak in body and soul is not always capable of offering the proper confession of his sins. This lightening of the conscience of the one who receives the Mystery of Unction opens the way also for a grace-giving healing of his bodily infirmity through the prayer of faith. There is allowed and sometimes practiced a rite of Unction, which is performed in church on many persons at the same time, on a special day assigned for this, for the general healing of infirmities of soul and body.
(shared through the Russian Orthodox Church in Singapore)