Unction: An Opportunity for Healing of the Whole Person
Sermon preached by Teva Regule, MDiv, PhD at the Service of Holy Unction on Great and Holy Wednesday, April 20, 2022
Glory to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—One God. Amen.
“Oil” — We use it today to heat our homes, cook, fill our spaces with fragrance and, in an emergency, to provide light. In antiquity, it was also used to covered athletes before competition and soldiers before battle. In the Biblical tradition, we find that oil was also used for light as we are reminded by the Parable of the Five Wise Virgins (Mt. 25) who brought oil for their lamps as they waited for the Bridegroom. It is their example of watchfulness that provides the thematic foundation for the Bridegroom Matins that we celebrate during Holy Week. In addition, it is used for healing as in the Parable of the Good Samaritan that is the first Gospel reading of our service tonight. It is used for reconciliation—the olive branch that was brought to Noah signifying the end of the flood. And it was used to anoint prophets, priests and kings, those who the Hebrew people believed could communicate with God.
In its sacramental life, the Church takes this oil and through ritual and symbol imbues it with deeper meaning. The oil becomes a symbol—which, in the classic sense is that which participates in which it represents—of our connection to God. It is a tangible connection to the healing and reconciliation that is constitutive of a life in Christ. Our baptism is the beginning of that life. At our baptism, after we renounce sin and profess our faith in Christ, we are first anointed with non-perfumed oil. Cyril of Jerusalem (a bishop of the 4th century) opines that this represents a grafting onto Christ, the source of life (MC 2.3). Here is builds on the understanding that one can take a non-fruit producing olive branch and when grafted into a fruit-producing tree, the branch can start to bear fruit itself. The ritual act of anointing with oil is then a communion with Life—with Christ and all those who are a part of Christ. In addition, it represents the unity of a life in Christ. Christ is the vine, the source and life for the branches; the branches are both connected to Christ and one another through Christ. Moreover, for Cyril, the anointing “cleanses [us of] all traces of sin” (MC 2.3) and arms one for continual battle with the evil one during the journey of this life.
Cyril continues to explain the power of the anointing during our Chrismation, now with perfumed oil. He says that the anointing with myron (the perfumed oil) brings healing, reconciliation, and joy through Christ. In his Mystagogical Catechesis, he says that the oil brings gladness because the “Holy Spirit is the author of spiritual joy” (MC 3.2). The body is anointed with this oil of gladness, allowing the newly baptized to experience the joy of a life in Christ. Finally, this anointing imprints God’s seal on the baptized. By anointing the newly baptized with oil, we all become prophets, priests and kings, participating in the life of Jesus Christ who is the Prophet, Priest, and King. As Christians, we are called to actualize this calling, speaking truth to power and praying for and ministering to those in need.
Our life in Christ is a dynamic process. Our progress is not linear but filled with steps, small and large, sometimes forward, sometimes backward. Sometimes, we are the ones who have been beaten up and left in the ditch as in the Parable of the Good Samaritan that we read tonight during the Unction service. From a Christian perspective, it is Jesus Christ who is our Good Samaritan. The one who covers us with the oil of healing and wine of the Eucharist and brings us to the Inn of the Church for recuperation. As we often say in our prayers, He is the “physician of our souls and bodies.” The healing that He offers is for the whole person—body, mind, and soul, both personal and communal. The sacrament of Unction offers this healing to us today.
The main part of our service this evening is composed of seven epistle readings, seven gospel readings and seven prayers—all of which speak to various aspects of healing. I would like to uplift some of their themes. The epistle readings, in particular, highlight the communal aspect of healing. In the first epistle from James (5:10–16), we hear of the institution of the sacrament. It emphasizes that it is the responsibility of the entire Church to care for its ailing members— “Is anyone among you suffering? Is any among you sick? Let them call for the elders of the church and let them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the Name of the Lord… Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” Other examples include the second reading (Romans 15:1–7) that stresses that we should be like-minded towards one another. The sixth reading (Galatians 5:22–6:3) lists some of the fruits of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. We are to live by the Spirit and walk with the Spirit, bearing one another’s burdens along the way. And the seventh and last epistle reading (Thessalonians 5:14–23) speaks of the God of peace sanctifying us completely and that our whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of the Lord.
The Gospel readings accent the healing power of Christ, recounting various times when Christ healed those with whom he came into contact. They also stress our responsibility for our neighbor. The first Gospel reading is the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37) and is considered the paradigmatic example of loving God and neighbor. Here, we are reminded to love not only God with our whole self—all our heart, soul, and strength—but also our neighbor as ourselves. In the story, it is the temple functionaries who first come across the man who has been beaten and left for dead. However, they pass him by, perhaps loving God but not their neighbor. It is the Samaritan, the ancestral enemy of the Jewish people, who stops to take care of the man in the ditch, tending to his wounds with oil and wine and bringing him to the Inn for recuperation. The parable concludes by emphasizing that we, as Christians, are to show mercy to our neighbor, no matter who they are. Other Gospel readings tell of Jesus healing the sick. For instance, the fourth reading (Mt. 8:14–23) recalls that Jesus healed the women with a fever and in the sixth reading (Mt. 15:21–18) He heals the daemon-possessed daughter of a woman of great faith. Her imploring of Jesus shows that our prayers—our imploring of Christ—are an aspect in healing of our neighbor.
The prayers of the service recount God’s mercy and healing as the “physician of our souls and bodies.” We begin by asking God to send the Holy Spirit to sanctify the oil used in the anointing for “healing and relief from every passion… and every ill.” In the first prayer, we pray that our anointing be for the “forgiveness/deliverance of sins and inheritance of the kingdom…” In the second and third prayers we reaffirm that Christ does not desire the death of a sinner, but one should repent and live and we ask Christ to bring mercy to those anointed with this oil for healing of soul and body. These themes are then developed in subsequent prayers. The sixth prayer then reminds us of Christ’s healing deeds—the healing of the woman with the issue of blood, the daughter of the Canaanite woman, the paralytic, etc. In all of these instances, healing was not just physical, but spiritual, not just personal, but communal. For instance, in the parable of the woman with the issue of blood, she not only suffered a physical ailment, but was most likely estranged from those around her. Furthermore, according to Jewish law, she could not attend worship in her state. She was estranged from herself, her family and her worship community. However, by touching Jesus’ garment, she was healed. She was able to be herself again and reintegrate into her family and community, reveling in their company. She experienced the life-transforming energies of Christ through the power of touch. The last prayer concludes by emphasizing that Christ is the “Physician of our souls and bodies” and that we have been created for life, communion with Him.
So, tonight we will be anointed with oil—on our foreheads, cheeks, chin and hands. We will, once, again, experience the healing power of Christ through the agency of the Holy Spirit through the touch of the oil to our skin. Similar to the anointing at our Baptism, the anointing in Unction reminds us of our initiation into a life in Christ and continues to offer us the healing and reconciliation that is constitutive of that life—both physical and spiritual, personal and communal—as well as a glimpse of the ultimate joy of that life as we continue our journey.
References from the Mystagogical Catechesis (MC) of Cyril of Jerusalem in Edward Yarnold, The Awe-Inspiriting Rites of Initiation. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 2006.