Healing and Forgiveness: Holy Unction


Sermon preached by Sarah Byrne-Martelli on Sunday, March 8, 2015 as part of Antiochian Women's Month

Today, we continue our series of reflections on Holy Week. Last Sunday, we reflected on repentance and vigilance in Bridegroom Matins, and today we shall explore forgiveness and healing, in relation to the Holy Wednesday evening service of Unction. Next week, we will explore the themes of humility and offering.

The Sacrament of Unction may be celebrated at any time for the healing of the sick. It is believed that Unction was added to Holy Week, so that those in need of healing and forgiveness would be received back into the Church. It is an opportunity to be reconciled with ourselves and our community in preparation for Pascha. It is described in Scripture by St. James: “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.”

From this text we see, first, the sacrament has the dual purpose of physical healing and the forgiveness of sins – the healing of body and soul. Second, the healing is personal, as we offer our individual needs, and more importantly, it is communal. Any healing occurs in the greater “body,” the body of the Church. And third, any healing bestowed by God must be lovingly shared with our neighbor. When we are forgiven, we are able to forgive others. Forgiveness is an ongoing process of faith, a constant “yes” to God, that we pass on to our community, our greater body. God forgives, so that we forgive.

The service is replete with imagery of bodily and spiritual healing, with seven epistles and seven Gospel readings; these stories illuminate the myriad ways God touches those who seek wholeness. We hear of the good Samaritan and his open-hearted love of neighbor, Zacchaeus seeking his Lord, and the healing by Jesus, through words and touch, of those who suffer. All through the texts is the theme of approaching Christ with faith, bringing our whole person to receive the oil. We are blessed on forehead and hands, evoking the oil we receive at baptism and chrismation. This tangible, fragrant oil evokes the healing touch of the Christ, Christos, the anointed one.

Secular culture often talks about forgiveness in a self-centered way. You've probably heard someone say, “Forgive, don't hold a grudge, because in doing so, you're only hurting yourself.” In other words, holding a grudge doesn't actually do much anyways....It doesn't hurt the other person in any effective manner, so you might as well let it go and stop hurting yourself! A self-centered approach. Or you hear of people not quite forgiving, but giving up: “I'm so done with that person. I've moved on.” Again, disconnected, and focused on my needs, my boundaries. But as Christians we see forgiveness as communion. We see it through the lens of Christ's life – his radical forgiveness of everyone. Anger, pride, hatred, adultery – all of it, lifted up on the cross and healed by the ultimate Forgiver. Unction shows us what God has in store for the world in its ultimate redemption, a glimpse of the Paschal sanctification of all life. God forgives, so that we may forgive.

Sometimes we think of healing as being obvious: we seek healing from an illness, an injury. The story of the Paralytic in today's Gospel shows a clear need – one man's hope to rise, take up his mat, and walk. He receives this blessing. But notice that Christ doesn't stop with his legs. To show his all-encompassing power and love, Christ also says to this man, “Your sins are forgiven.” The paralytic walks, yes, but now that he walks, the question becomes who will walk with him and share in this reconciliation. Like the paralytic, we too need healing in places that are not so obvious – those areas where we sin in word or in deed, in knowledge or in ignorance.

Our Buddhist friends have a concept of a “body scan” - a practice of meditation wherein a person intentionally focuses on one's body, using centering breath as a means to develop awareness of pain and tension. You would start at the head, breathing awareness into the top of the head, becoming aware of any tension or pain, holding that awareness, and releasing it in tune with the breath. You would then continue through the body, bringing attention to the face, throat, shoulders, continuing down to the feet, and then returning up.

This kind of embodied awareness is invaluable in developing a sense of ways we hurt. I'd offer that we could do another type of body scan – more like a soul scan, if you will – a reflection on the places that need spiritual healing. How about the scar tissue from resentments that we keep engaging, the tightness from anger that we won't release? The fearful words that tighten our throat, the back pain of burdens we carry, or the fists that cling to unhealthy ways? I invite you to try a soul scan, to assess the places that need healing. We can't offer them up if we are not aware of them. We must bring awareness to our pain and step forward to receive the oil of forgiveness from the Physician of our souls and bodies.

Hear the comforting words of the First Ode of the Canon: O Master, You always gladden the souls and bodies of mortals, with the oil of loving kindness, and You also safeguard Your faithful by oil. Show compassion also to those who now draw near to You through the Oil. We are stepping toward a safe place when we participate in Unction. A safe place where God forgives, so that we may forgive.

In my work as a Hospice chaplain over the past twelve years, I have accompanied patients and families through the end of life journey and witnessed many beautiful moments. I recall a visit with a 90 year-old Catholic patient named Anna, living with dementia, at home with one of her daughters. As her condition declined, I contacted the family's priest to administer the sacrament of the sick. Later that day, her daughter Maria and I read Psalms and said the Lord's prayer at the bedside. We took leave of her mother, who lay there breathing peacefully. She had not interacted in weeks, and was lingering with little quality of life.

Maria and I sat down at the kitchen table. Maria confessed that she was feeling a great deal of anger at her sisters. They lived locally and led busy lives, stopping in only periodically to say, “You're doing great, Maria, keep up the good work! Love you Mom, see you later!” Although Maria felt deep gratitude for the closeness she shared with her mother, she struggled with shouldering the care alone. Further, her growing anger at her sisters was a smoldering fire. We sat together in her little kitchen, discussing her resentment. It was painful to carry such love, anger, gratitude, frustration, all bundled up together. Together, Maria and I prayed again at the table – for healing, to be forgiven and to forgive. We prayed for release from her anger. She prayed she could forgive her sisters for passing off all the care onto her. She pledged to reach out to her sisters that day and reconnect. As we prayed her shoulders relaxed; her hands unclenched. We said Amen; I thanked Maria and left the house.

As I was getting in my car, Maria came running down the street, calling, “Wait, wait!” During our kitchen table prayer time, Maria's mother had died. While we sat there together, praying for forgiveness, for healing, her mother had peacefully died, with the words of the Lord's Prayer the last she would hear. Maria kept saying, “I can't believe it. I actually feel peace. I'm not afraid!” She opened herself to forgive and to be forgiven. All her years of caregiving culminated in the gentle repose of her beloved mother. Her mother had been anointed with the oil of healing, heard the words our Lord taught us, and breathed her last. All at once, a daughter, a mother, and a family found some measure of the healing, forgiveness and peace that surpasses understanding.

True stories like this can help us gain clarity. But I'd venture to say: I'd rather our end of life journeys not be so very dramatic. I would rather your loved ones not rush in at the last minute to create a big moment of forgiveness for a broken life. God willing, I want your bedside, and my bedside, to be one of peace, of gentle, easy calm, because we are seeking forgiveness now, and seeking healing now. Not waiting till the end. Not waiting till resentment or fear set up shop in our hearts, with walls built around them, getting taller and taller every year. It's not pretty. It's not comfortable. It may not change the people around us. But reaching out, and reaching within, changes us. When we forgive or are forgiven, we see what is wrong, but we are not bound by it. If we accept forgiveness, then we, too, become forgivers, and that is Paradise. Paradise is singing and praying together; paradise is waiting in the line of people approaching Unction; paradise is prayerful communion at the kitchen table. God forgives, so that we may forgive. Amen.