The Holy Mysteries (Sacraments): The Mystery (Sacrament) of Holy Unction

St. Jesse, Bishop of Tsikani in Georgia

St. Jesse, Bishop of Tsikani in Georgia

My beloved spiritual children in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,

[Source: Orthodox Dogmatic Theology by Father Michael Pomazansky]

The Essence of the Mystery (Sacrament)

The Mystery (Sacrament) of Holy Unction (Holy Oil) or (Gk. Ευχέλαιον) is a sacred action in which, while the body is anointed with holy oil, the Grace of God which heals infirmities of soul and body is called down upon a sick person.

The Divine Institution of the Mystery (Sacrament)

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 Holy 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 (Sacrament) of Unction is to be found in the Holy 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 committed sins, they shall be forgiven him." The Holy 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 (priests) 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 Holy Apostle James (Iakovos) 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 Holy Apostles did not introduce anything of themselves, but they taught only what the Lord Jesus Christ had commanded them, 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 (Sacraments) and the "servants of Christ," Consequently, Holy Unction also, which is commanded here by the Holy Apostle James, has a Divine institution.

In ancient Christian literature one may find indirect testimonies of the Mystery of Unction in Saint Irenaeus of Lyons and in Origen. Later there are clear testimonies of it in Saints Basil the Great and John Chrysostom, who have led prayer for the healing of the infirm which entered later into the rite of Unction; and likewise in Saint Cyril of Alexandria. In the fifth century, Pope Innocent I answered a series of questions concerning the Mystery (Sacrament) 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 Holy Apostle, "let him call for the presbyters," 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" ("Sacrament"), and "to those who are forbidden the other Mysteries (Sacraments), how can one allow only one?"

This Mystery (Sacrament) 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 (home) where the sick person is. The Mystery of Holy Unction is usually preceded by the Mystery (Sacrament) of Repentance/Confession and is usually concluded with the Mystery (Sacrament) of Holy Communion.

The visible side of the Mystery (Sacrament) 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 Gospels. 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 Holy Unction (Euchelaion) begins with the singing of troparia (hymns) 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 entreat 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 (Sacrament) of Holy 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 Holy 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 Holy Unction.

[Please note: In the rite, usually performed in the evening of Holy and Great Week (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 anointing 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 Masterl hearken tous, O Holy One."

This, of course, does not mean that the Mystery of Holy Unction is not performed also on the dying; those dying of a long illness may even receive Holy Unction several times in the course of their illness. However, Holy Unction is a separate Mystery (Sacrament), for the healing of the sick, and is not a necessary part of the rites administered to the dying, which usually includes 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 Holy Unction is, according to ancient tradition, poured cross-form over his body in  eh coffin at the end of the funeral service.]

Unction Among Protestants and Roman Catholics

The Protestants have rejected the Mystery (Sacrament) of Holy Unction, although Luther, at least in the beginning, was not against allowing it in church practice. The Roman Catholic tradition up to now has given Holy Unction only to sick persons who were already near death, as a form of preparation for death, which is why this Sacrament is called among them "Extreme Unction," the Sacrament of the dying. Such a teaching appeared in the Latin West beginning in the 12th century and is in clear contradiction to the words of the Holy Apostle James.

From ancient times in the Church, the dying were given, as a preparation for death, Holy Communion of the Precious Body and Blood of Christ.


The Grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God and Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.


"Glory Be To GOD For All Things!"--Saint John Chrysostom


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

+Father George