On the Service of Holy Unction
Sermon Preached by David Vermette on Holy Wednesday - April 4, 2007
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Throughout the season of Great Lent the Church reads the Book of Genesis. That book of Scripture teaches that God created mankind, male and female, in his image and in his likeness and set them in a Paradise where they enjoyed all of the good things of the Earth. The man and the woman lived without sickness, without violence, without fear, without doubt, and without shame. Perhaps the greatest gift of all is that our primeval ancestors enjoyed free discourse with the Creator of All. But God in creating them in his image gave them the power of freedom, and that means they were free to choose what was contrary to God’s will – if they could not choose what was contrary to God’s will then they would not be free. And if they were not free then they were not in God’s image. So, by definition, by factory specification, if you will, the man and the woman had an extraordinary ability – the ability to turn away from God.
Tempted by the serpent, but through the power of her God-given freedom, Eve ate the forbidden fruit. One of the Fathers said that the very fact that she believed the lie of the Serpent tells us that Eve had turned away from God in her heart already. The serpent in the garden coupled with the serpent that already had coiled around Eve’s heart, the serpent that wished for the gratification of her own ego flattered by the lie of the serpent which was “you will be like God.” But here’s the funny thing: she was already like God. She had been created in His likeness. The fact that she accepted the lie of the Serpent proves that, by this point, Eve had already lost her self-knowledge, her sense of who she was as God had created her. She sinned, she missed the mark because she had forgotten herself.
And Adam, sharing Eve’s delusion, and no less culpable, also exercised his freedom and tasted the fruit of his own willfulness. Adam and Eve, having turned away from the will of God now had to accept the consequences of their freedom, exchanging the Paradise in which they lived for this fallen world of ours. And the greatest consequence of our first parents’ awesome freedom is that we children of the fallen world get old, we get sick and we die and return to the dust from whence we came.
And all Creation fell with Adam and Eve. “Cursed be the ground because of you,” says the Lord to Adam after he refused to repent but a precursor to generations of husbands blamed his wife for his own sins. “All Creation groans in travail together” teaches Saint Paul in Romans, Chapter 8, and will continue to groan until the defied sons of God are revealed. St. Symeon the New Theologian teaches that “when it saw [Adam] leave Paradise, all of the created world which God had brought out of non-being into existence no longer wished to be subject to the transgressor.” (1) Rather than being the Paradise where God walked, the world, from a fallen perspective, became a realm groaning under the tyranny of mechanistic, deterministic natural laws, which exercise a draconian, implacable, and unavoidable sway. A world of entropy, where everything flees from the center, decays and dies. It’s a world where (to clean up the bumper sticker) stuff happens in an apparently accidental way. A world which brings forth the thorns and thistles of natural disasters where, for example, there are geographical features called tectonic plates that shift and grind against each other and cause earthquakes that swallow the good with the bad.
Our fallen world is a world not of subjects but of objects. To be clear, I am a subject; my shoe is an object. A subject says “I” or we address a subject as “you” or “he” or “she”; an object is something we call “it.” Those on the way of the saints, however, see all of creation as brimming with subjectivity, full of the Logos, the Divine Word by which God brought forth all things. The saints see all of Creation as declaring the Name of God which is “I AM.” The priest who substituted for Fr. Antony on the Sunday of the Holy Cross pointed out that the Cross is addressed in our hymns as “you” and not as “it.” This apparently wooden object is addressed as a subject. Our secular science and philosophy, on the contrary, prefer to subtract all subjectivity from the world seeing in it merely a collection of manipulable objects. In this view, the human soul, the breath God breathed into the man and woman at their creation, is seen as merely the by-product of an object called the brain, a couple of pounds of flesh in my skull which may be manipulated by chemical or other means. In our fallen psychology, human beings are seen not as subjects, as icons of God, but merely as objects that, as the phrase goes, ‘meet my needs,’ and that usually means my desires, my pleasures.
Knowing that we have fallen so very far, having become victims of the accidents of sickness and death, the Church takes objects out of this world and sets them apart, as healing balms of the serpent’s bite. Father Tom Hopko reminds us that the word “Holy” means to be set apart. So the Church takes objects out of a fallen world and sets them apart by calling down upon them the power of the Spirit. In this way, she redeems the wood and paint of the Holy Icons, the metal of the crosses we wear, the water she blesses at Theophany, and pre-eminently the bread and wine set apart for the Eucharist. The Holy Trinity, through the church, fills these objects with the subjectivity of the Holy Spirit.
And in the same manner tonight we have the Holy Unction, the oil, a small thing that has been set apart by God as a portion of the therapy of this spiritual hospital we call the church. This night, through this oil, the visible sign of an invisible reality, we annul the curse of Adam; this night we declare that nature has no independence apart from nature’s God, and that mankind’s freedom fulfills itself in the redemption of His likeness. When this likeness is fully restored we will know that sickness and death have no substantive reality – they are only the long-term side effects of having accepted the lie of the Serpent who implied that we were not already like God.
The author who called himself ‘a monk of the Eastern Church’ drew a distinction between the ascetical and the mystical aspects of the spiritual life. In plain English that means that it involves a co-operation between the exercise of our will and effort and the invisible action of God. Tonight the only ascetical effort that the Church asks of us in this anointing is to be there. If the lights are on but nobody’s home to receive the anointing then we neglect to cooperate with the invisible action of God. So when we come tonight to kneel beneath the Gospel book and receive the Mystery of the anointing with the Holy oil, let us choose not to reiterate Eve’s delusion – that is let us not forget who we are. With our minds in our hearts, let’s redeem Eve’s error by remembering ourselves. Anointing with oil is an ancient rite of kingship. Let’s remember this night that our birthright is to be kings and queens of the material world in Paradise and co-heirs with the Incarnate Son of God of the Kingdom of the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.
(1) To avoid taking Saint Symeon out of context, the saint also says that God, in response to the enmity between mankind and creation after the Fall, subjected the creation to Adam once more as if by a special decree. However, Saint Symeon also makes clear that after the Fall the Earth was changed from an incorruptible to a corruptible state, a realm where human beings live as ‘foreigners and exiles.’
Cf. St Symeon the New Theologian, On the Mystical Life – The Ethical Discourses, Vol. 1: The Church and the Last Things, trans. Alexander Golitzin (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995) 26-31.