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An Orthodox Handbook

by Fr. Anthony Alevizopoulos


Chapter 20 - The Mystery (Sacrament) of the Holy Unction

1. The constitution of the holy Sacrament

That which had made a particular impression on the Judeans during Christ's lifetime was the authority He had over evil spirits and His power of healing every kind of sickness.

Even more amazing however was the fact that Christ had also imparted this authority to the Apostles:  «And when He had called His twelve disciples to Him, He gave them power over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease.» (Matth.10:1).

And when they returned, filled with enthusiasm, they exclaimed to Christ: «Then the seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in Your name.» (Luke 10:17).

Mark the Evangelist also mentions that the Apostles preached repentance to the people, adding that they «And they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick, and healed them.» (Mark 6:13).

However, this healing power remained - in accordance with the desire of the Lord - as a prerogative of the Church, in which Christ is present.  The Apostle Jacob (James) notes characteristically in the event that a Christian falls ill: «Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders 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, and the Lord will raise him up.» (James 5:14-15).

It is self-evident that this healing action does not constitute an act of magic, as it is performed with faith and prayer, and is done "in the name of the Lord" (see also Acts 3:6; 16:4,10; 9:34).


2. How the Holy Unction relates to Confession

The holy Sacrament of the Unction is not only linked to the healing of the body, but also to the healing of the soul: «And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven», as the Apostle so characteristically adds (James 5,15).

This however does not mean that we can substitute the holy Sacrament of Confession with it. With holy Unction we receive spiritual reinforcement and - as mentioned by several Fathers - we are also forgiven any sins that we may have forgotten and consequently weren't able to confess. 

The primary significance of the holy Unction is to pray for the health of the body. This is the reason our Church links these two Sacraments and exhorts those - for whom the Unction is performed - to also go to Confession.


3. A Sacrament of the Church's act of love and caring

Characteristically, the holy Unction in the Orthodox Church is normally performed by seven priests - that is, by a symbolic number that denotes fullness - without this meaning that it cannot also be performed by fewer priests, or even one alone. However, it is not only the priests that are seven in number; the blessings are also seven in number, as are the Apostolic readings and the Apostolic excerpts that are recited.

This fullness of the number seven signifies that the holy Unction expresses and reveals the love and the caring of the overall Church for the bodily and spiritually ailing member of Hers.  The entire parish that the patient belongs to is represented by the presbyters and it also joins in with its prayers and love for the patient, who, as a member of the Church, must sense the presence and the caring of the other members. This is something that the patient is especially in need of, during times of sickness and loneliness and when confronted by the danger of physical death.

During this holy Mystery, the Church prays for the full recovery and complete therapy of Her ailing member, so that it be delivered "safe and intact" back to Her, so that it will be able to "please and fulfill" God's will.

«His mouth is replete with praise for You», as another prayer characteristically says. «Open his lips, so that they may glorify Your Name, extend his arms so that they may execute Your commandments; guide his feet on the path of Your Gospel; secure well with Your Grace the mind and the members of his body».

And when all the body is anointed with the holy oil, the priest recites the following words:

«Most holy Father, Physician of souls and of bodies, You Who has sent Your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ Who heals every sickness and Who redeems from death, heal also Your servant ..(name).., for You are the source of healing...»

This, therefore, is the favour that the Church petitions for the complete healing of body and soul.  The result of this supplication does not belong to the Church, but to God's love - except that this love does not always correspond to the subjective thought and the limited volition of man.


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Article published in English on: 21-7-2013.

Last update: 21-7-2013.