The Theology of Illness (Part III)

Holy, Glorious Prophet Elijah

Holy, Glorious Prophet Elijah

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

By Jean-Claude Larchet

Christian Paths Towards Healing

The Mystery (Sacrament) of Holy Oil (Efchelaion) or Holy Unction

There are other practices in addition to prayer--though always based on prayer--whose purpose is to invoke and effect the healing grace of God.

The first to mention is Holy Unction (one of the Seven Sacraments). This practice is attested to in the Gospels (Evanggelia) and many of the healings by the Holy Apostles are connected to it: "they...anointed with oil many that were sick and healed them," says the Evangelist St. Mark (6:13). Meanwhile, the Holy Apostle James recommended its ecclesiastical usage in the following way: "Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders (presbyters or priests) 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" (St. James 5:14-15).

The Orthodox Church continues this Apostolic practice by conferring the sacrament of Holy Unction not only on the dying but upon all the sick who ask for it, even if their illness does not seem in any way severe. In its usual form it is administered by seven priests, the elders (presbyters) of the Church referred to by the Holy Apostle James. The service is made up of three long sections. The first part is a "Service of Consolation" (Paraklesis) for the one about to receive the sacrament. The second part centers on the blessing of the Holy Oil to be used for the anointings. After having prayed "for the blessing of this oil through the power, the action and the descent of the Holy Spirit," the seven priests, each in turn, say the following prayer:

"O Lord Who, in Thy mercy and compassion, healest the torments of our souls and bodies, Thou Thyself, O Master, sanctify this oil that it may be a healing for those who are anointed with it and an end to all suffering, to every physical and spiritual infirmity and to all evil..."

The third part consists of the anointing of the sick by each of the priests. Each unction is preceded by readings representing the main passage of Scripture having to do with healing as seen both from the perspective of the sick person and from that of those around them. After the readings, the priest who is about to perform the unction says a prayer. The seven priests constitute the fundamental core of the service. Bringing to mind the mercy and compassion which God has always shown mankind, they ask Him to preserve the life of the sick person, to alleviate his suffering, and to heal and strengthen his body. Most importantly, they ask God to forgive his sins, to confirm his spiritual life, to assure his salvation and sanctification, and to accomplish the regeneration of his entire being and the renewal of his life in Christ. Each prayer puts special emphasis on one or the other of these elements, but all of them connect the consolation of the soul with that of the body, spiritual healing with physical healing, and they emphasize the fundamental importance of the former without underestimating that of the latter. Then follows the unction, together with the prayer:

"O Holy Father, Physician of our souls and bodies, Who hast sent Thine Only Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, to heal all evil and to free us from death, deliver also Thy servant (Name)...from his weaknesses both physical and spiritual, through the grace of Thy Christ, and preserve the life of this man (women)...for thou art the Fountain of healing, O Our God, and we ascribe glory to Thee and to Thine Only Son and to Thy consubstantial Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages."

Then the seven priests together place the open Gospel Book on the head of the sick person and recite a penitential prayer asking God for the forgiveness of his sins. In fact the entire service bears a strong penitential character. The main reason for this is that the aim of this sacrament is not merely physical healing but also the healing of spiritual illness and the forgiveness of sins. This is consistent with the prescription of Saint James and the double meaning of the verb sozein: "...the prayer of faith will heal/save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven" (5:15). This penitential aspect is further justified by the fact that every bodily illness is rooted in sin (even though this is not always a personal sin, as Saint James emphasizes through the use of the conditional conjunction kan: "and if has committed sins..."), and that healing necessarily entails the destruction of sin and the restoration of our fallen nature. Finally, it is justified by the fact that a return to physical health truly has meaning, as we will see further, only in relation to mankind's ultimate end, to the salvation of his whole being which is made possible only through a victory over sin. It is from this perspective that the Church, throughout the service, asks God for the salvation of the sick as well as for the healing of his physical illness.

It is notable that anointing with Holy Oil is not practiced strictly in a sacramental setting. Many spiritual elders use it freely, while the Lives of Saints tell of numerous healings effected in this way.

The Use of Holy Water

Another prevalent practice is the use of Holy Water which one may drink, pour over the body or apply to an ailing part of the body. Through these means, God often brings healing to those who pray for it. This water conveys the healing energies of God by virtue of the Holy Spirit, Whom the priest asks Christ to send down during the ritual blessing of the waters, especially during the Holy Feast of Theophany (Epiphany). After having prayed "for the sanctification of this water through the power, operation and presence of the Holy Spirit," and "for the descent upon these waters of the purifying action of the Holy Spirit," the priest asks God to "change this water into a gift of sanctification…for the healing of soul and body," and to make it "a fountain of incorruption…the healing of the sick, the crushing of demons," and again "that it may remain inaccessible to the powers of the enemy (Satan), filled with the power of angels and that, in drawing and tasting it, all might use it effectively for the purification of their souls and bodies." The celebrant priest then adds the following prayer: "Give to all those who touch it, are anointed with it and taste of it, sanctification, purification and health."

God's healing grace can also be effected through the laying on of hands, according to Christ's promise: "Those who believe…will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover" (St. Mark 16:18), and according to his own example given on numerous occasions. Together with this act through which the power of the Holy Spirit is conveyed is found the epiklesis (invocation), the prayer asking Christ to send the Spirit in the Father's name.



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!"--St. John Chrysostom


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

+Father George