Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come from God and was going to God, rose from supper, laid aside His garments, and girded Himself with a towel. Then He poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded. He came to Simon Peter; and Peter said to Him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not know now, but afterward you will understand.” Peter said to Him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no part in me.” John 13: 3-8 (From the Gospel on Holy Thursday morning at the Vesperal Liturgy)
The Holy Week journey makes its first dramatic shift today. In the Pre-Sanctified Liturgy of Holy Wednesday morning, we read of the first act in the Passion of Christ, His betrayal by Judas. Judas makes a deal with the Jewish leaders to betray Christ for thirty pieces of silver. The lengthy Gospel lessons of Jesus final public exhortations and private teachings comes to an end. We are about to experience the intensity of His Passion.
There are generally two services held in the afternoon and evening of Holy Wednesday. One is Holy Unction, the other is the Service of the Bridegroom, sometimes called the “Niptir” service. Let’s start off talking about the Bridegroom service. There is a procession early in the service of an icon of the Last Supper. The hymns of the service speak to the betrayal by Judas, contrasted by the Institution of the Eucharist by Christ.
The other service is Holy Unction. Holy Unction is NOT a Holy Week service. It was added to Holy Week only in the last few centuries. Holy Unction can be done at any time of the year, but because it wasn’t prescribed to be done on a particular day, a few centuries ago, the Church decided that it would be a good idea to put Holy Unction in Holy Week, to make sure that every church and every Orthodox Christian had the opportunity to participate in it each year. At St. John in Tampa, we will celebrate Holy Unction on the first Wednesday we are able to return to the church when this current crisis is over. So, please don’t think that because we are not having a traditional Holy Week journey, that you can’t receive Holy Unction this year. In fact, Holy Unction is kept in all churches all the time. A priest can administer Holy Unction at any time if a person requests it.
So, if we are not going to anoint many people, what then is the utility value of doing Holy Unction this year? This year, perhaps for the first time, we will understand each other better. I never receive Holy Unction on Holy Wednesday, as there has been no other priest in Tampa where I serve. I have gone to a nearby priest each year to receive Holy Unction during Lent. Yet, each year, I take a benefit from this service. It is one of my favorite services in fact. How is that? Because I take away a great benefit from the prayers of this service. The prayers of this service are great spiritual therapy. They provide encouragement and reassurance. They reassure us that God loves us, and has high hopes for us, even if we’ve strayed from Him. They reassure us that when we repent, He is ready to forgive.
I encourage you to attend the service tonight with a humble heart, to let the prayers “wash over you” the way a pleasant breeze washes over you on a warm day. Savor the words of the prayers. Let them penetrate your heart and soul. You may not be receiving an anointing with Holy Unction, but you can receive the grace of the Holy Spirit through the prayers of this service.
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 prayers 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.
Have mercy on me, O God, according to Thy steadfast love; according to Thy abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against, Thee, Thee only have I sinned, and done that which is evil in Thy sight, so that Thou art justified in Thy sentence and blameless in Thy judgment. Behold I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. Behold, Thou desirest truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than show. Fill me with joy and gladness; let the bones which Thou has broken rejoice. Hide Thy face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Psalm 51: 1-9
Prayer of Protection from the Coronavirus
(Prayer by Grace Bishop Alexis (Trader) of Bethesda)
O God Almighty, Lord of heaven and earth, and of all creation visible and invisible, in Your ineffable goodness, look down upon Your people gathered in Your name. Be our helper and defender in this day of affliction. You know our weakness. You hear our cry in repentance and contrition of heart. O Lord who loves mankind deliver us from the impending threat of the corona virus. Send Your Angel to watch over us and protect us. Grant health and recovery to those suffering from this virus. Guide the hands of physicians, and preserve those who are healthy that we may continue to serve You in peace and glorify Your most honorable and majestic Name, of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and forever and to the ages of ages. Amen.
Allow the grace of the Holy Spirit to wash over you through the prayers of Holy Unction tonight!
The Prayer Team now has its own dedicated website! There you may find a database for past prayer team messages as well as books by Fr. Stavros and other information about his work and St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL.
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The Revised Standard Version of the Bible is copyrighted 1946, 1952, 1971, and 1973 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. and used by permission. From the Online Chapel of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.