Holy Unction

Washing of the Disciples' Feet

Beloved brothers and sisters in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,
Christ is in our midst! He was and is and ever shall be. Ο Χριστός έν τώ μέσω ημών. Και ήν και έστι και έσται.


The Mystery of Holy Anointing (Greek: Efchelaion, or 'prayer of the oil') is celebrated whenever an Orthodox Christian is seriously ill, mentally or physically. It is a long and solemn ceremony of seven anointings with consecrated olive oil, interspersed with extensive Scriptural readings especially, the seven Gospels which focus on the healing power of the Lord. It is also known as the Mysterion of the Holy Unction. The ideal form of the celebration is that seven priests are called together, and each one reads one of the seven Gospels and performs one of the seven anointings, all the while praying for the recovery of the sick persons. The Mysterion is the continuation of the ritual of healing mentioned in the holy Gospel of Saint Mark and more elaborately in the holy Epistle of Saint James the Apostle.

"If any among you is sick, them call for the presbyters (priests) of the Church, and let them pray over the sick person, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith shall save the sick person, and the Lord shall raise them up. If they have committed sins they shall be forgiven them.

This is no less than the continuation of the Apostolic Charisma (Gift) of healing that was given by the Lord to His missionary Disciples, as a sign of the nearness of the Kingdom. His own powerful ministry (diakonia) of healing was a sacrament of the eschatological sign of the Kingdom among the continuing present of the world. As it was with the Lord Himself, the prayer of healing is not a magical rite. It depends on the Grace of the Lord, not upon some inherent power of a separate holiness abiding in His servants. Yet it remains true that Christ has given His enduring gift of healing to the Church. The grace of healing can evidently flow through the prayer of a righteous person, and even if the celebrants are themselves less than transparent windows to the Lord's grace, they are still empowered by this mystical rite to give a powerful and indefectible blessing by virtue of the Apostolic Succession that derives from their ordination and through the mystical of the sanctified Unction. As in all the other mysteries, it is the mystery of the Father, the grace of Christ, and the consoling gift of the Holy Spirit that empowers the rite, and accordingly their power of blessing cannot fail. A dramatic physical healing may not always occur, though it often does; but this is only one of the multitude of ways that this Sacrament unfailingly confers the joy of the Lord, for the deep consolation of the sick person.

The celebrating clergy are meant to prepare themselves carefully through prayer and fasting. The sick person too, according to his or her strength, makes a special preparation. On the evening before, or the morning in advance of the healing, the sick person makes a private confession to the leading celebrant priest, and their conscience is quieted and strengthened by the Sacrament. The prayers of the anointing ritual constantly stress the link between our sinful state and our sufferings. This is not to imply a simplistic link between our state of sinfulness and our state of health, but rather to admit our human need and our fallibility, of which physical and mental sickness are the clearest of all symbols.

The admission of our need, not least in the form of our sinfulness, is a necessary part of the mystery. It is an elemental part of the issue of metanoia, or repentance, to which the Mystery of Holy Unction is closely connected.

The Holy Unction is not a Sacrament for the dying. The last Sacrament of all is meant to be the Gift of the Holy Eucharist as "food for the journey." And that is not a sorrowful packing up of our goods, but a joyful setting out on a fresh pilgrimage, with the Holy Gifts which we shall eat with the Lord as new wine in the Kingdom of God. The Mystery of Holy Unction is fundamentally a Sacrament for the sick, for their healing and recovery, even though sometimes it may be the first stage of their preparation for death.

The Mysterion of Holy Unction is shown as an eschatological Sacrament also insofar as the sick person is an icon of the Lord, in his communion with his own mystical body. The compassion to the sick shown by the Church is one and the active love for Christ that makes the family of the Church live in the grace and power of its Lord. This is the Mysterion spoken of in the Gospel when it describes the eschatological charge of the Last Judgment: "Lord when did we ever see You sick?... Whenever you did it to the least of one of these My brethren, you did it to Me". So it is that we still give by receiving, and receive abundantly by giving.

The prayer of the Consecration of the Oil expresses a theology of gladness. It reads, in part as follows:

"O God without beginning and without end, Holy of Holies, Who sent Your Only-Begotten Son to cure sickness and every weakness of both body and soul, send down your Holy Spirit and sanctify this oil. Let it be for your servants who are anointed, the complete deliverance from their sins and the inheritance of the Kingdom of Heaven. For You are God, great and wonderful, and you keep your covenant and mercy to those who love You…May this oil, O Lord, be an oil for gladness, an oil of sanctification, a royal vestment, a powerful breastplate, a protection against every work of the devil, and inviolable seal, joy of heart, an everlasting delight, so that all who are anointed with this oil of regeneration may become mighty against their enemies and shine brightly with the radiance of Your saints, and be without spot or wrinkle, and that they may be received into Your eternal rest and win the prize of their high calling. For it belongs to you to have mercy, and save us, O God, Our God, and to you we give glory, to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and to the ages of ages. Amen."

After the pure olive oil has thus been consecrated (with prayers that clearly connect it with the Mysterion of Holy Baptism), the seven priests take turn anointing the sick person, invoking also the help of all the Church's Great Saints who have excelled in healing charisma in past ages. These are known in the Orthodox Church as the 'Holy Unmercenaries." The sick person is anointed with a cross on the forehead, the chin, the cheeks and both sides of each hand.

The Sacramental ritual is repeated in a more generalized form in Holy and Great Week, on Holy and Great Wednesday evening. Holy Unction with the blessed oil is offered to all the Orthodox Christian faithful who attend that Liturgy in memory of the Lord's impending death. During the successive readings of the holy Epistles and Gospels, the whole congregation is anointed, while a refrain is sung in a solemn melody: "Hear us O Lord, hear us O Master, hear us O Holy One." The link between the death of the Lord, in which His faithful find a source of healing and blessing, is underscored once again in this liturgical connection, and is highly reminiscent of the relation between the Mystery of Anointing and the Baptismal initiation into the life-giving death which is celebrated in that primal sacrament. The Church performs this ritual in preparation, as it were, for the burial of the Lord which will take place in the great Mysteries of Pascha in a few days' time. The anointing of the whole congregation, Christ's own Body, fulfills the Gospel text: "She has done what she could, she has anointed My Body beforehand, as for its burial."

Sickness is one of the ways in which the disciple (the Christian believer) enters into the experience of death "beforehand." In this consoling mystery, the Lord Who Himself once suffered bravely shares His mercy, understanding, and compassion with His beloved. On very many occasions that mercy results in the manifest gift of healing, so that we can resume our pilgrimage with fewer burdens, having glimpsed the joy of Christ, and the boundless compassion that actually surrounds us all the time. We merely lose sight of it occasionally.

The actual anointing prayer is as follows:

Holy Father, Physician of our souls and bodies, You sent Your Only-Begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to heal every disease and to deliver us from death, now heal Your servants also from the weakness of body and soul which binds them, and give them life through the grace of Your Son. This we ask through the prayers of our Most Holy Lady, the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary, by the might of the precious and Life-Giving Cross, through the protection of the honorable, heavenly, and bodiless Powers, of the honored glorious Prophet, Forerunner and Baptist, John, of the holy, glorious and all-praised Apostles, of the holy, glorious and victorious Martyrs, of our venerable and God-bearing Fathers, of the holy and healing Unmercenaries, Cosmas and Damian, Cyrus and John, Panteleimon and Hermolaos, Sampson and Diomedes, Mocios and Acinitos, Thalalaios and Tryphon, of the holy and righteous Forebears of God, Joachim and Anna, and of all the Saints. For You are the spring of healing, O God, Our God, and to you we give glory, to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Please note: This information is given to all of you so that you may truly understand and appreciate this great gift (charisma) and Mysterion (Sacrament)of God as you are about to receive it this evening. It can no longer be tolerated for Orthodox Christians to receive the Sacraments of the Holy Church without knowledge, without faith, without commitment, without gratitude, without repentance, without confession, without fasting, without prayer, without conviction…

We cannot and we must not abuse the sacraments of the Church or be disrespectful to them.  To do it is to offend God and to reject His Divine Love for us.

With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George