On the Service of Holy Unction

Sermon intended to be delivered at St. Mary Orthodox Church on Holy Wednesday, April 8, 2015

In his absence, Catechist Emeritus David Vermette offers us the following reflection.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

This year, as catechist emeritus, I’d like to take a catechetical view of this service. That’s a fancy way of saying that I’d like to look at it from the standpoint of what we can learn about it and from it. 

Traditionally, this service is offered by seven priests. We just heard seven epistle and seven gospel readings. In some communities seven candles are placed on the table behind me, and one candle is lit after each Gospel reading. Why seven?

In the ancient world of the Bible numbers were symbolic. They represented not only quantities but also qualities. The number seven represented divine fullness or completeness. In the Book of Revelation, St. John addresses the seven churches. This means the full or complete church, the Body of Christ as a whole. The Book of Revelation has the form of an Epistle. In our Bibles, it is placed among the so-called Catholic Epistles, that means those addressed to the Church as a whole rather than to a single community.

The Apostle Peter asks the Lord, “How many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” This means, shall I forgive fully and completely?  Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven times.” Seventy is an order of magnitude above seven. So, seven times seventy means that we are to forgive orders of magnitude beyond what we think of as full and complete forgiveness. The symbolism of seven, then, is most appropriate for this service which is oriented toward healing, toward making us complete and whole in the divine fullness of God’s love and forgiveness, as we press forward toward the Empty Tomb.

In this service tonight we hear seven complete units consisting of a Psalm verse, an Epistle reading, the Alleluia, a Gospel reading, a brief litany, and then the priest’s prayer. Each of these seven sections has a theme and this service, like all of the Church’s services, is constructed with great wisdom and discernment.

In the first of the seven sections the theme is the sacrament of Holy Unction itself. Oil was well known in the ancient world for its medicinal properties and we are called on to rejoice and to trust the medicine God has prepared through the Church. The Epistle reading from James grounds the Sacrament of Holy Unction in the Apostolic Church. The Gospel reading presents us with the Good Samaritan who treats the wounded man with oil. The priestly prayer in this first section asks the Holy Spirit to sanctify this oil, calling it “an oil of gladness, an oil of sanctification…that those who are anointed with this oil…may shine in the radiance of thy Saints, having neither spot nor wrinkle,” whole and complete in the eyes of human beings as they already are in the eyes of God.

The theme of the second section is hope in suffering. “We are chastened” in this life, the Psalm verse reminds us, “but not given over to death.” In the Epistle, St. Paul reminds us that by steadfastness we have hope and the Apostle calls the Lord, “The God of steadfastness” and of hope. The Gospel reading is about Zacchaeus who is steadfast in his hope of seeing Jesus, going out of his way to climb a tree just to catch a glimpse of Him. Even though Zacchaeus is reviled by his neighbors as a sinner, as a traitorous tax collector, he is steadfast in charity and good works nonetheless. The priestly prayer cites the Scripture which says, “As often as thou fallest, arise and thou shall be saved.” 

The theme of the third section is the might of God and that His might is His love. We read the portion from 1 Corinthians in which the Apostle Paul teaches us what love is, in one of the most transcendent and significant passages ever written by the hand of a human being. In the Gospel reading, Jesus gives His disciples the gift of healing and teaches them what love means: that it is not only an emotion but rather a giving of self. It means that what we receive without paying, we must give without receiving.

The fourth section reminds us to have patience. Divine fullness comes in God’s time and not our own. The Alleluia verse says, “I waited patiently for the Lord and he attended to me.” In the Gospel reading, we see Jesus healing all who were sick, each in his or her proper time and in His own way. There is a time for every purpose under heaven. There is a time to follow Jesus immediately and leave the dead to bury their dead, and there is a time to wait patiently for the hour of deliverance.

In the fifth section we hear the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, which heralds the theme of watchfulness, the need to be spiritually alert and self-aware even in affliction. The priest models this essential virtue of the spiritual life in the priestly prayer where he acknowledges himself as personally called, although unworthy, to “the holy and sublime degree of the priesthood.” In this section of the service the priest and all of us are invited to be like the wise virgins, with the lamps of our spiritual heart on fire with the light of consciousness, with the humility born of self-reflection and self-knowledge.

The sixth section speaks of purification. “Create in me a clean heart…and renew a right spirit within me,” proclaims the Psalm verse. St. Paul reminds us of the need to crucify the passions. In the Gospel reading, we see that even a Canaanite woman, a member of the nationality which was the ancient enemy of the Jews, Jesus purifies and restores with her daughter to divine fullness when he sees her faith. 

The final section is a surprise in that it does not take a triumphalist tone. It speaks of weakness. “Have mercy on me O Lord for I am weak,” reads the Psalm verse. “Help the weak, be patient with them all,” teaches St. Paul in the Epistle. “Those who are well have no need of a physician but those who are sick,” says the Lord in the Gospel reading.  The summit of this ladder of seven steps is to acknowledge our sickness, our weakness, our insufficiency, the hole in our hearts and minds that can only be fulfilled in God and His incomprehensible mercy and love.

Only then, only now, do we approach the oil, the Spirit-bearing gift, with the knowledge that without God we can do nothing. Our hearts are patient, open, watchful, prepared for what only He can provide. It is time for the Lord to act. Amen.