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|Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky|
Orthodox dogmatic theology
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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
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 special 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; but this rite is not precisely identical to the Mystery of Unction (In this
rite, usually performed in the evening of Passion Wednesday, as if in preparation for our Lord’s death and burial, all
present come forward to be anointed by each of the seven (or fewer) priests. The rite is identical to that of the Mystery
of Unction, except that if there are many people (and seven priests), the anointings may be performed all together
at the end of the service, instead of after each reading of the Gospel, to the accompaniment of a repeated refrain
to a special lenten melody: “Hearken to us, O Lord; hearken to us, O Master; hearken to us, O Holy One.”).
Unction among Protestants and Roman Catholics.
The Protestants have rejected the Mystery of Unction, although Luther, at least in the beginning,
was not against allowing it in church practice. The Roman Church up to now has given
Unction only to sick persons who were already near death, as a form of preparation for death,
which is why this Mystery is called among Roman Catholics “Extreme Unction,” the Sacrament
of the dying. Such a teaching appeared in the Roman Church beginning in the 12th century and is
in clear contradiction to the words of the Apostle James.
From ancient times in the Church, the dying were given, as a preparation for death, Holy
Communion of the Body and Blood of Christ (This, of course, does not mean that the Mystery of Unction
is not performed also on the dying; those dying of along illness may even receive Unction several times in the course
of their illness. However, Unction is a separate Mystery, for the healing of the sick, and is not a necessary part of the
rites administered to the dying, which usually include Confession, Holy Communion, and the Prayers for the Departure
of the Soul (when death seems close). If the sick person dies, the consecrated oil left from Unction is, according
to ancient tradition, poured cross-form over his body in the coffin at the end of the funeral service.).