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Holy Unction

Unc­tion of the Sick

Christ came to the world to “bear the infir­mi­ties” of men. One of the signs of his divine mes­si­ahship was to heal the sick. The pow­er of heal­ing remains in the Church since Christ him­self remains in the Church through the Holy Spirit.

The sacra­ment of the unc­tion of the sick is the Church’s spe­cif­ic prayer for heal­ing. If the faith of the believ­ers is strong enough, and if it is the will of God, there is every rea­son to believe that the Lord can heal those who are diseased.

Is any among you sick, let him call for the 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 will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has com­mit­ted sins, he will be for­giv­en. There­fore, con­fess your sins to one anoth­er and pray for one anoth­er, that you may be healed (Jas 5:14–16; see also Mk 6:13).

The sacra­ment of anoint­ing is a “sobor­nal” sacra­ment in the tra­di­tion­al Ortho­dox prac­tice. This means that as many of the faith­ful as pos­si­ble are gath­ered to par­tic­i­pate in the prayers. The rite itself calls for sev­en priests, sev­en read­ings from the epis­tles and gospels, sev­en prayers and sev­en anoint­ings with oil specif­i­cal­ly blessed for the ser­vice. Although it is not always pos­si­ble to per­form the sacra­ment in this way, the nor­mal pro­ce­dure is still to gath­er togeth­er as many priests and peo­ple as possible.

The express pur­pose of the sacra­ment of holy unc­tion is heal­ing and for­give­ness. Since it is not always the will of God that there should be phys­i­cal heal­ing, the prayer of Christ that God’s will be done always remains as the prop­er con­text of the sacra­ment. In addi­tion, it is the clear inten­tion of the sacra­ment that through the anoint­ing of the sick body the suf­fer­ings of the per­son should be sanc­ti­fied and unit­ed to the suf­fer­ings of Christ. In this way, the wounds of the flesh are con­se­crat­ed, and strength is giv­en that the suf­fer­ing of the dis­eased per­son may not be unto the death of his soul, but for eter­nal sal­va­tion in the res­ur­rec­tion and life of the King­dom of God.

It is indeed the case that death inevitably comes to man. All must die, even those who in this life are giv­en a reprieve through heal­ing in order to have more time on the earth. Thus, the heal­ing of the sick is not itself a final goal, but is mere­ly “instru­men­tal” in that it is giv­en by God as a sign of his mer­cy and as a grace for the fur­ther oppor­tu­ni­ty of man to live for him and for oth­ers in the life of this world.

In the case where a per­son is obvi­ous­ly in the final moments of his earth­ly life, the Church has spe­cial prayers for the “sep­a­ra­tion of soul and body.” Thus, it is clear that the sacra­ment of holy unc­tion is for the sick-both the phys­i­cal­ly and men­tal­ly sick-and is not reserved for the moment of death. The sacra­ment of unc­tion is not the “last rites” as is some­times thought; the rit­u­al of the anoint­ing itself in no way indi­cates that it should be admin­is­tered mere­ly in “extreme” cas­es. Holy unc­tion 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.