Is any one among you suffering? Let him pray. Is any cheerful? Lett him sing praise. Is any 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 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. The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects.
James 5: 13-16
On Holy Wednesday, we have the opportunity to receive Holy Unction, one of the sacraments of the church. Many will approach this as just another ritual and not understand any of its meaning. This sacrament is very rich in meaning and symbolism.
Let’s start off with the use of oil. Oil was a sign of reconciliation with God. When the world was flooded out at the time of Noah, Noah sent out a dove from the ark and the dove brought back an olive branch, which told Noah that the waters had receded and that the flood was over. Oil was also used for anointing of kings and prophets and priests. So it was a sign of chosenness. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the Samaritan went to the man who had been wounded and poured oil and wine on his wounds. So oil had medicinal purposes.
The same three purposes are expressed in the sacrament of Holy Unction. We receive it as a sign that we are still chosen people in the eyes of God. We receive it as an act of reconciliation. The sacrament is accompanied by prayers of forgiveness, asking God to reconcile us back to Him. And Holy Unction is received as spiritual healing. Holy Unction doesn’t heal a broken leg. However, every physical injury and emotional wound has a spiritual component. In our weakness, the devil tries to discourage us. In our failings, we become sad. And in our tough moments, we become despondent and hopeless. Prayer and Holy Unction minister to these spiritual frailties.
Notice that I wrote both prayer and Holy Unction minister to our frailties. For the prayers of this sacrament are as important as the sacrament itself. Just hearing the prayers is like therapy in my opinion. We’ve all had the experience of just standing in the shower and letting hot water pour over our shoulders, massaging our tired and stressed out bodies. As we stand for these seven prayers, let the grace of the Holy Spirit pour over your stressed out soul. It’s like when we get in the shower and just stand there for a while and then start washing. We will stand awhile while the grace of the Holy Spirit washes over us in prayer and then go for the actual washing through anointing at the end of the service.
We will hear seven Epistle readings, seven Gospel readings and seven prayers. Why seven? This is an example of a tradition based on Scripture. In the Old Testament book of 2 Kings, we read the story of Naaman, a commander in the Syrian army who also had leprosy. Elisha told him to go wash in the Jordan River seven times and he would be cured. The church has taken this number, seven, and chosen seven Epistle and Gospel readings that are related to physical and spiritual healing. Seven prayers are added to these.
When we are anointed, we will be anointed on our foreheads (minds), chins (mouths), cheeks (under the eyes), and on the top and bottom of our hands. This covers our senses. What we think, what we see, what we say and what we do can be done in ways that glorify God and ways that are destructive. We can use our minds, eyes, mouths and hands to wound people or to help them. And our minds, eyes, mouth and hands are also wounded not only by our sins, but by the circumstances of life that inflict wounds on us.
The seventh prayer offered at Holy Unction tells us that God “did not create man for destruction, but for the keeping of Your (His) commandments and to inherit life incorruptible.” Every year, we are complicit in destruction because of sin, and we are the victim of destruction because of the sins of others and the fallen nature of the world. These prayer remind us of who we were created to be, as well as God’s mercies and encouragement when we fail to live up to that.
O Master, Lord our God, Physician of souls and bodies, it is You Who soothe the chronic pains and heal every infirmity and malady of the people. You desire that all should be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth, and You will not the death of the sinner, but rather that he should repent and live. For You, O Lord, in the Old Testament, ordained repentance for sinners: for David and the Ninevites, and for those before and after them. But also in the new dispensation of Your coming in the flesh, You called not the righteous but the sinners to repentance; like the publican, the harlot, the robber, and the blasphemer and great persecutor Paul, receiving them all through repentance. Peter, Your great Apostle who denied You three times, You received in repentance, and promised him, saying: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it; and I will give You the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven.” Therefore, O merciful and loving God, encouraged by Your faithful promise, we pray and entreat You at this hour. Hear our prayer and accept it as incense offered to You. Visit these Your servants, and if they have transgressed in either word or deed or thought, by night or by day, if they have come under the curse of a priest or their own anathema, or have sworn an oath, we pray to You; loose, pardon, and forgive them, O God, overlooking their transgressions and their sins, committed by them knowingly or in ignorance. And if they have transgressed Your commandments, or have erred, as bearing flesh and living in the world, or by the prompting of the devil, forgive them, as a merciful and loving God; for there is no man who lives and does not sin. Only You are sinless; Your righteousness is to all eternity, and Your word is truth. You did not create man for destruction, but for the keeping Your commandments, and to inherit life incorruptible. To You we ascribe glory, together with Your Father, Who is from everlasting, and Your all-holy, good, and life-giving Spirit, now and ever, and to the ages of ages. Amen.
Allow the grace of the Holy Spirit to wash over you through the prayers and the Holy Oil in the service tonight!
Fr. Stavros N. Akrotirianakis is the Proistamenos of St. John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL. Fr. contributes the Prayer Team Ministry, a daily reflection, which began in February 2015. The Prayer Team now has its own dedicated website!
Fr. Stavros has produced two books, “Let All Creation Rejoice: Reflections on Advent, the Nativity and Epiphany”: “https://amzn.to/2t1rXwh and “The Road Back to Christ: Reflections on Lent, Holy Week and the Resurrection.” https://amzn.to/2WAcfG0
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