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Sickness and Healing

June 20, 2009

“ Matthew 4:24 – Then His fame went throughout all Syria; and they brought to Him all sick people who were afflicted with various diseases and torments, and those who were demon-possessed, epileptics, and paralytics and He healed them.”

Why the paranoia about Swine flu? Why do we freak out about AIDs? If we hear someone’s sick at work why do we start taking precautions and washing our hands more often?

It’s something about sickness that carries a power that frightens us. Really, we know what it is, sickness reminds us of our own mortality, it is an echo of death, it tells us that the end is nigh, we don’t live forever.

Everyone gets sick at some time or another, whether it’s a simple cold or something as painful and wasting as cancer. I didn’t know my grandfather. What I do know is that he was never sick throughout his life, not once. That is, he only got sick at the end, in the last six weeks, when his final illness killed him. You could say the sickness was necessary, so that he would pass on; that sickness caused him to die. The point is, illness, sickness brings us face to face with death.[1]

I was carelessly watching television the other day. Something I rarely do, but I was visiting someone’s house and there was the television on in the background.  It was one of those property programs about this rich man building his own luxury house with his many millions – all was going to plan until he had a heart attack. The result was a quadruple heart operation (I’m not even sure what that is – but sounds serious). This changed his whole perspective – suddenly the big flashy house, with curvy super glass windows for a fantastic view, swimming pools and a home cinema was not so important – his wife and kids were. He changed perspective; it was the jolt he needed; it woke him up.

As Fr. Meletios Webber says “Illness and pain are not generally regarded as positive elements in our lives, and no one of good will would wish illness and pain on himself or on someone else. However, sickness and distress do get our attention.”[2] Sickness wakes us up, shakes us out of our slumber, makes us realise that there are some more important things in life. As Fr. Meletios goes on to point out, sickness is a stark reminder that we are not in control. When we are sick others have to look after us, we depend on other people. We also depend on God. It is easier to see we are dependant when we are sick, even the most rebellious teenager is brought down by a cold and wants mummy and chicken soup.

How often have we heard stories of people who have had really serious, painful, life threatening experiences, and in the face of the great enormity of death they have turned to God. Thus, sickness makes us ultimately realise that God who is the Author of Life, is in charge. He runs the show.

Ultimately, God is the great healer. How many of Jesus’s miracles were about healing. In fact, have you been listening to the Gospel in Church the past few Sundays before Pentecost you’ll have noticed a few. There was the Sunday of the Paralysed Man, the Sunday of the Blind Man, this Sunday after calling his disciples Christ goes off  healing people “And he went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every infirmity among the people.”  In fact the vast majority of Jesus’ miracles seem to be those of healing.

See a full list here.

It’s interesting that these healing miracles are all related to the Kingdom of God, to the Reign of God. In English we call it the ‘anointing’ of the sick. Who’s anointed? Well Kings are anointed. This is something telling us about being inheritors of the Kingdom. The healing we receive in the Church leads to a new life. As Fr. Meletios points out ‘death leads to a new life. We are involved in a very great mystery’[3].

However, in the Orthodox Church we do take a different view of sickness. We see the old Hebrew attitude to sickness – the ancient Jewish attitude – in the Gospel of the Blind Man. Here you see the people ask whether it was his sin or his parents sin that caused him to be blind. Ill physical health, physical defects – if you will – were seen to be signs of spiritual defects. For the ancient Jews the two were interrelated, and that is why we have a whole host of rules, regulations, laws and so on in the book of Leviticus relating to cleanliness and holiness. Cleanliness was next to Godliness, and good health also. However, we see clearly in these Gospel readings that somehow sickness exists that God may be glorified. Our strength is mad perfect in weakness – to quote Paul.

However, we tend to only think about our health when we are sick – the rest of the time we forget about our health altogether. We forget that our body is a temple for the Holy Spirit and that we have an obligation to look after it. This is where the mystery of the anointing of the sick comes in, the sacrament of Holy unction. This mystery reminds us that Christ is the Great Healer. He trampled down death by death, he is victorious over sickness, sin, and death. He has overcome the consequences of the Fall. Again, here is Christ at the centre of the mystery.

Christ came to establish his Kingdom on earth. Note how all the healing miracles in the Gospels – the Good News – are related to the teaching about the Kingdom, the Reign of God in our lives. As we will hear in this Sunday’s Gospel, when christ called the twelve disciples – he gave them authority over unclean spirits; they could cast them out, they could heal every disease, sin and infirmity. They were also told to proclaim the Kingdom as they did this “Preach as you go saying : The Kingdom of heaven is at hand” Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons.” Matthew 10:8

Christ is the suffering servant – he is at the centre: Look at one of the prayers from the Unction Service:

“We thank Thee, O Lord our God, who art good and lovest mankind, the Physician of our souls and bodies, who painlessly hast borne our infirmities, by whose stripes we have all been healed, Thou good Shepherd, who didst come to seek the wandering sheep; who givest consolation to the faint-hearted, and life unto those who are broken of heart…who takest away the sins of the world, and wast nailed to the cross; we beseech Thee, and entreat Thee, in Thy goodness loose, remit, forgive, O God, the errors of Thy servant, N., and his iniquities whether voluntary or involuntary, whether of knowledge or ignorance, whether of excess or of disobedience…”

Here Christ is the suffering servant – but the suffering servant who transforms His suffering into glory. As the American Quaker, William Penn, put it “No pain, no palm; no thorns, no throne; no gall, no glory; no cross, no crown”. Christ transforms this humiliation into glory, this suffering into victory over sin and death.

What we must remember however, is that for a Christian our life doesn’t end with death, but begins there. This sacrament,’, remarks Sergius Bulgakov, ‘has two faces: one turns towards healing, the other towards the liberation from illness by death. The only real death for a Christian is spiritual death. The deadness of our soul. Therefore, the mystery of the anointing of the sick is also for spiritual healing.

“The meaning of suffering is changed in Christ. The healing that Christ offers is victory over this world and the devil. One of the prayers even mentions physical death as part of the spiritual healing, “that they who shall be anointed with this oil of regeneration may be terrible unto their adversaries, and may shine in the radiance of thy Saints, having neither spot or wrinkle; and that they may attain unto thy rest everlasting, and receive the prize of their high calling.” And in the seventh prayer, “Because thou hast not created man for destruction, but for the keeping of thy commandments, and for inheritance of life incorruptible.”

When we get seriously ill – two things can happen – we can lose our faith altogether or we can find salvation through suffering. We all will face death. The question is, will it be a victory or not. Healing is not necessarily taking away the suffering, but it is through the suffering, through the cross that Christ power is made manifest. As St. Paul says to the Phillipian church, “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that i, if possible, I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Ph. 3:10-11). The anointing is a passage from this world into the Kingdom of God where death and suffering no longer win. The suffering is joined to the cross and becomes a martyrdom. The Christian who suffers well is the most profound witness of the church to the world. God can and does heal people physically, but what a greater testimony of Christ’s victory than the martyrdom of redemptive suffering. We all must face the cross in this life, will it be a victory or the loss of salvation? St. Paul writes to the Corinthians about his own suffering, “Why, we felt that we had received the sentence of death; but that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead; He delivered us from so deadly a peril, and He will deliver us; on Him we have set our hope that He will deliver us again” (II Cor. 1: 9-10).[Father Christopher – Sin, Sickness and Healing]

Let us now turn our attention on the mystery of unction. We will also call it euchelaeon, which is essentially a transliteration of the Greek ευχέλαιον, and stands for “blessed oil” (ευχή = blessing prayer, έλαιον = oil).

When does it take place? The Sacrament or Mystery of Holy Unction is conducted in Orthodox parishes on the afternoon or evening of Great and Holy Wednesday. The Sacrament of Holy Unction is offered for the healing of soul and body and for forgiveness of sins. At the end of the service, the body is anointed with oil, and the grace of God is called down upon each person, because ut is this heals infirmities of soul and body. The Sacrament is performed by a gathering of priests, ideally seven in number, however, it can be performed by a lesser number and even by a single priest.

Euchelaion is a reminder that God is with us. As with Chrismation, oil is also used in this Sacrament as a sign of God’s presence, strength, and forgiveness. After the reading of seven Epistle lessons, seven Gospel lessons and the offering of seven prayers, which are all devoted to healing, the priest anoints the body with the Holy Oil. Orthodoxy does not view this Sacrament as available only to those who are near death. It is offered to all who are sick in body, mind, or spirit.

The biblical basis for the Sacrament is found in James 5:14-16:

Is any among you sick, let him call for the 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 will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.

The anointing taking place here is more than a natural means of healing. Indeed, olive oil is a natural remedy for many ailments. My mother use olive oil on everythingbaby’s sick -rub it in oil, ears blocked, put in oil etc. A bit like the  guy in Big Fat Greek wedding “Put some Windex”. Many of these remedies with olive oil are more than just old wives’ tales. It was known for its healing properties in ancient Greece. Scientists today have discovered that olive oil as painkilling properties has much as a 10th of ibuprofen. However, when St. James is advising the use of olive oil he is not thinking in terms of physical healing only.

The olive oil is also a physical and visible sign of God’s grace. In the Old Testament it was used for healing, for hospitality, but also in special ceremonies inviting God’s grace,

[It’s clear that it is not just medicinal from the following:

1. The oil is not applied by just anyone, but by the presbyters (the priests) of the Church.

2. Olive oil on it’s own is not a panacea. It doesn’t cure everything, but St. James suggests the sacrament for all sicknesses.

3. The healing does not take place by physical means, but by the prayer of faith saves the sick person.

4.  St. James also says that if the sick person has committed sins, they will be forgiven. This is more than just healing from oil.]

It is clear that the healing is through healing grace.

1. the prayer of faith will save the sick person

2. if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him.

Powerful though it is it does not destroy death which is the last enemy to be destryoed.(1 Cor. 15:26). Ultimately, death gets destroyed completely at the Resurrection.

Furthermore, this mystery also brings about healing to the soul. Of course, sins are forgiven through confession as Fr. Chrysostomos explained so well last time. Sins are forgiven in taking communion through the Lord’s blood. Yet there is plenty of testimony to unction’s soul-therapy, psychotherapy.

Saint Irenaeus of Lyons and in Origen refer to unction. We also find  clear testimonies to this mystery in the writings of St. Basil the Great,  St. John Chrysostom and St. Cyril of Alexandria. They wrote down prayers for the healing of the sick and these now exist in the Mystery of the Healing Oil.   In the 5th century, Pope Innocent I answered a series of questions about this Mystery. He said that a) it should be performed “upon believers who are sick”; b)  a bishop can perform it as well as a priest c) this anointment may not be performed “on those underecclesiastical penance”  because it is a  sacrament.

The express purpose of the Sacrament of Holy Unction is healing and forgiveness. Since it is not always the will of God that there should be physical healing, the prayer of Christ that God’s will be done always remains as the proper context of the Sacrament. In addition, it is the clear intention of the Sacrament that through the anointing of the sick body the sufferings of the person should be sanctified and united to the sufferings of Christ. In this way, the wounds of the flesh are consecrated, and strength is given that the suffering of the diseased person may not be unto the death of his soul, but for eternal salvation in the resurrection and life of the Kingdom of God.

It is indeed the case that death inevitably comes. All must die, even those who in this life are given a reprieve through healing in order to have more time on the earth. Thus, the healing of the sick is not itself a final goal, but is merely “instrumental” in that it is given by God as a sign of his mercy and as a grace for the further opportunity of man to live for him and for others in the life of this world.

In the case where a person is obviously in the final moments of his earthly life, the Church has special prayers for the “separation of soul and body.” Thus, it is clear that the Sacrament of Holy Unction is for the sick-both the physically and mentally sick-and is not reserved for the moment of death. The Sacrament of Unction is not the “last rites” as is sometimes thought; the ritual of the anointing itself in no way indicates that it should be administered merely in “extreme” cases. Holy Unction is the Sacrament of the spiritual, physical, and mental healing of a sick person whatever the nature or the gravity of the illness may be.

Orthodox Christian Celebration of the Sacrament of Holy unction

The Sacrament itself calls for seven priests, seven readings from the Epistles and Gospels, seven prayers and seven anointings with oil specifically blessed during the service. Although it is not always possible to perform the sacrament in this way, the normal procedure is still to gather together as many priests and people as possible.

At the end of the service the priest anoints the faithful as he makes the sign of the cross on the forehead and top and palms of the hands saying, “For the healing of soul and body.”

Order of the Service

1. Introductory Prayers and Psalms 143 & 51

In these Psalms we confess our sinfulness before God and ask Him to cleanse us and make a “new and right spirit within us” (Psalm 51:10).

2. Canon

In this series of verses that are read or sung, we ask God to show mercy upon us and cleanse our souls, to drive away all evil powers, to grant salvation to those who are sick or suffering, and to grant us the healing of our souls and bodies. At the end of several sets of verses, we ask God to renew our lives so that we may bless, thank and glorify Him forever.

3. Short Prayers or Troparia to the Saints

We pray to the saints – especially those who have helped the sick and suffering, and to those who have been martyred for the glory of God – and to the Mother of God to intercede for us for the salvation of our souls.

4. Epistle and Gospel Lessons and Prayers

There are seven sets of Epistle and Gospel readings and prayers.

a. James 5:10-16; Luke 10:25-37

b. Romans 15:1-7; Luke 19:1-10

c. I Corinthians 12:27-31;13:1-8; Matthew 10:1,5-8

d. II Corinthians 6:16-18, 7:1; Matthew 8:14-23

e. II Corinthians 1:8-11; Matthew 25:1-13

f. Galatians 5:22-6:2; Matthew 15:21-28

g. I Thessalonians 5:14-23; Matthew 9:9-13

Each of the seven prayers asks for the remission of the our sins, for the healing of our souls and bodies and for life everlasting.

Hymns and Prayers of the Sacrament of Holy Unction
Exapostelarion of the Sacrament

In mercy, O Good One, cast Thine eyes upon the petitions of us who today are come together in Thy Holy Temple, to anoint Thy sick servants with Thine oil divine.

Troparion (Tone Fourth)

Thou who alone art a speedy succor, O Christ, manifest Thy speedy visitation from on high upon Thy sick servants; deliver them from their infirmities, and cruel pain; and raise them up again to sing praises unto Thee, and without ceasing, to glorify Thee; through the prayers of the Birth-Giver of God, O Thou who alone lovest mankind.

Prayer of the Oil

O Lord who, in thy mercies and bounties, healest the disorders of our souls and bodies, do Thou, the same Master, sanctify this Oil, that it may be effectual for those who shall be anointed therewith, unto healing, and unto relief from every passion, every malady of the flesh and of the spirit, and every ill; and that therein may be glorified Thy most Holy Name, of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and to the ages of ages. Amen.

Prayer of Anointing

O Holy Father, Physician of souls and bodies, Who didst send Thine only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, to heal every infirmity and deliver from death: Heal Thou, also, Thy servants from the ills of the body and soul which do hinder them, and quicken them, by the Grace of Thy Christ; through the prayers of our most Holy Lady, the Birth-Giver of God and Ever Virgin Mary; through the intercession of the honorable bodiless Powers of Heaven; through the power of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross; through the protection of the honorable, glorious, Prophet and Forerunner John the Baptist; of the holy, glorious and righteous Martyrs; of our righteous and Godbearing Fathers; of the holy and healing unmercenaries Cosmas and Damian, Cyrus and John, Thaleleus and Tryfon, Panteleimon and Hermolaus, Samson and Diomidis, Mokius and Aniketos; of the holy and righteous ancestors of God, Joachim and Anna; and of all the Saints. For Thou art the Fountain of healing, O God, our God, and unto Thee do we ascribe glory, to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and to the ages of ages. Amen.

So what is Anointing about … it’s about guiding the sick (physically/spiritually) person to the cross in order to find victory. The mystery isn’t about getting rid of illness – but about whether whether we will be victorious in the face of it. The fact is we will all get sick, and we will all face death. The question is – will it be a victory or not? Will we take up that cross and be victorious?

[1] See also Fr. Meletios Webber, “Bread & Water, Wine & Oil” : Chaper The Mystery of Anointing, Conciliar Press, 2007, p. 161-2

[2] Ibid, p.162

[3] Op. Cit. P.162

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