On Wednesday of Holy week our Orthodox tradition calls for us to celebrate the Mystery, or Sacrament, of Holy Unction, either in the afternoon or in the evening. This liturgical practice is connected with the Gospel account at the Presanctified Liturgy earlier today of the woman who poured “very costly fragrant oil” on the head of Christ while He was at dinner on this very evening of Holy Wednesday with Simon the Leper, the father of Lazarus whom He had raised from the dead.
As Jesus had healed Simon of physical leprosy, the repentant harlot hoped to be healed of her spiritual “leprosy.” The connection between this Gospel account and the anointing “for the forgiveness of sins and the healing of the body is obvious.
As Jesus can heal physical illness — the physical leprosy of Simon — and restore physical life — raising Lazarus from the dead — so He can also heal our spiritual leprosy — the uncleanness of our souls — and can raise us from spiritual death — from our sins — thus restoring us to fullness of life both in body and in soul.
It has long been the liturgical custom of the Church to bless oil at this time in Holy Week. Tonight the priest invokes the Holy Spirit to consecrate this olive oil as “holy anointing” for the forgiveness of sins and the health of soul and body. Tomorrow morning the bishop invokes the Holy Spirit to consecrate a blend of olive oil, wine, balsam and forty other essences as “Holy Chrism” for the conferral of the gift of the Holy Spirit at the Mystery of Chrismation — as well as for the consecration of altars and the anointing of Orthodox emperors.
In current practice, the heads of the patriarchates and autocephalous churches celebrate the consecration of Holy Chrism during the Vesperal Divine Liturgy of the Mystical Supper on Holy Thursday morning immediately after the consecration of the bread and win. That Holy Chrism is then imparted to the hierarchs within that patriarchate or church to be further distributed to their priests. This demonstrates the unity of the Episcopal office and of the Church. Our Holy Chrism is consecrated at the Ecumenical Patriarchate every few years as needed.
In Roman Catholic practice, their bishops consecrate Chrism, holy unction, and the oil of the catechumens used at Baptism on Holy Thursday morning. In Orthodox practice the “Oil of the Catechumens” is blessed by the priest during the Service of Baptism, just before the actual Baptism takes place.
The Mystery of Holy Unction can be celebrated any time when necessary, not just on Holy Wednesday. Traditionally it is celebrated by seven priests, each of whom reads one of the seven Gospels and one of the seven prayers. On Holy Wednesday, however, it is celebrated by a single priest for the benefit of the whole parish.
So that the faithful can be anointed “for the forgiveness of sins and the health of soul and body” at any time, Holy Unction from this service will be “reserved” for use throughout the forthcoming year as necessary. The remaining Holy Unction from last year will then be burned in a kandili tonight and tomorrow.
Similarly, Holy Communion will be “reserved” from tomorrow morning’s Vesperal Divine Liturgy so that it can be taken to the sick throughout the coming year and used for Baptisms. The remaining reserved portion of Holy Communion from last year will be consumed after the Divine Liturgy tomorrow morning.
Throughout Great Lent we should have been preparing to celebrate the events of Holy Week and especially the great Feast of Pascha through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Tonight we should be preparing to celebrate the Vesperal Divine Liturgy tomorrow morning through fasting and, ideally, through Holy Confession. At the very least we should receive Holy Unction for the forgiveness of sins and the health of soul and body.
How do we know that Holy Unction is effective for the forgiveness of sins and the health of soul and body? The Scriptural basis for this Mystery is very clear as we hear in the first Epistle reading this evening:
“Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms. Is anyone 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, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much. (James 5:13-17)
Note that this passage speaks about the necessity for both Mysteries: Holy Unction and Holy Confession. Also note that the Greek word translated as “elders” is “presvyteroi,” or presbyters. The English word for “presbyter” is priest; in other words, the Apostle James tells us to bring the sick to be anointed by the priest(s).
Why do we use olive oil? The simple answer is that it was readily available, since olive oil is a prime component of the Mediterranean diet. As a natural substance, its health benefits are well known. It is a natural juice which preserves the taste, aroma, vitamins and properties of the olive fruit; it is the best source of monounsaturated fat and has a high content of antioxidants. Interestingly, it is the only vegetable oil that can be consumed freshly pressed from the olive fruit.
Olive oil has long been used as a medicinal “ointment.” We even read in Holy Scripture that (olive) oil was poured onto the wounds of the injured man found by the good Samaritan, along with wine, as a healing salve. As a “natural” healing substance, its properties are well established.
But what happens when this natural health product, given by God to man for our benefit, is consecrated? When we invoke the Holy Spirit to sanctify it, the Prayer beseeches God to grant that:
“… it may be effective for those that shall be anointed with it, for healing and relief from every passion, from every malady of the flesh and of the spirit, and from every ill.”
It is indeed for the healing of both our spiritual ills and our physical weakness, a healing of soul and body that is invoked in the name of the Trinity:
“… that therein Your most-holy Name: of the ✠ Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit may be glorified, now and ever, and to the ages of ages.”
Let us therefore continue our prayer in faith, and with sincere and contrite hearts prepare to come forth to receive this healing Mystery.
To our Lord Jesus Christ the only True Physician of souls and bodies be all honor, glory, and worship, to the ages of ages. Amen.