On the Service of Holy Unction

Today, as we reach the midpoint of Holy Week leading into Holy Thursday, we participate in the Sacrament of Holy Unction. Tonight is a special opportunity to be reconciled with ourselves and our community in preparation for Pascha. We should note first that the Sacrament of Unction has the dual purpose of physical healing and the forgiveness of sins – the healing of soul and body. Second, this healing is completely personal and specific, as we offer our individual needs, AND it is completely communal, because healing occurs in the greater “body,” the Body of the Church.

This evening’s 7 Epistles and 7 Gospels illuminate the myriad ways God touches and heals those who seek wholeness. We heard how Jesus heals lepers, he heals the fever of Peter’s mother-in-law, he heals the daughter of the Canaanite woman who had an unusually bold faith. Jesus sits with tax collectors and sinners. He meets with Zacchaeus, even though everyone mumbles and murmurs and has a lot of opinions about it.

Woven through the texts is the theme of approaching Christ with faith, bringing our whole selves to receive the healing oil. We are blessed on foreheads and hands, evoking the oil we receive at baptism and chrismation. This tangible, fragrant blessing evokes the healing touch of the Christ, Christos, the anointed one.

As a Palliative Care chaplain, I pray with patients every day for every type of healing imaginable. I pray for people facing a new diagnosis of cancer, a worsening of chronic disease, or painful wounds that don’t respond to treatment. I once prayed in tears for a young pregnant woman who was in sudden devastating heart failure; she had already suffered multiple miscarriages, compounding her anxiety and fear. The whole medical team held our breaths, not knowing whether delivering her baby would cause her heart to stop. Miraculously, the beautiful baby was born healthy and his mother recovered. We all took a deep sigh of relief. A glimpse of healing!

I am in awe of my patients and it is an honor to pray for their healing. I am constantly reminded that I am not the one doing the healing. Instead, I experience the presence of God in those I care for. A few months ago, I was particularly struck by a beautiful Orthodox Christian woman, facing her end of life due to terminal cancer, who surprised me with her prayer request. I assumed that she might be praying for an end to her pain. Instead, a life of long-practiced faith emboldened her to say: “Sarah, my prayer is not that God will take away my pain. I know that suffering is part of this life. Instead, my prayer is that God will give me strength to bear my pain, to keep turning to God with love.” What courage. What depth of faith.

Some of us may know the exact places we seek healing: a chronic illness, a painful injury, a new diagnosis. We also need healing in places that are not so obvious – those areas where we sin in word or in deed, in knowledge or in ignorance.

Where do you need healing? Even if you can’t think of a physical ailment, how about the scar tissue from resentments that we keep engaging, or the tightness in our chest from anger that we won't release? The judgmental words that tighten our throat, the back pain of burdens we carry, or the fists that cling to unhealthy ways? Shoulders tightened in fear, jaws clenched in reactiveness?

I invite you, right now, to loosen your shoulders, relax your hands, feel the ground beneath you, the ground of our being, the One who holds us sturdily. Take a deep breath. Relax into the knowledge that God holds our imperfect selves, with a love that is astonishingly perfect. With awareness, we step forward with openness, to receive the oil of forgiveness from the Physician of our souls and bodies.

Let us remember that any healing, life-changing as it can be, does not end with us. Healing is never just about us. When the brokenness of our bodies and souls is mended, we are able to mend our relationship with the world. We know this because alongside the healing Gospel stories we heard, we heard the story of the Good Samaritan, with its key question, Who is my neighbor?

As Christians we understand healing as communion. God heals, so that we may be whole – and thus able to live fully, to forgive and reconnect and heal our relationships with our neighbors.

Notably, tomorrow we will commemorate Jesus’ washing the feet of his disciples, perhaps the most visible act of Jesus’ profound humility. The One who heals shows us what humility is.

Sometimes when we think of humility, it feels like something we are forced into. We fall down, perhaps literally, and we are embarrassed and humbled. We realize that we were wrong about something, and we are temporarily humble. We are prideful about something, only to realize we are misguided.

I was humbled recently when I realized our 8 year old is about a thousand times better at math than I ever will be, and no matter how many times he tries to teach me how to play video games I will always be terrible at them. That’s one type of humility.

But that’s not quite the humility Christ shows us throughout this Holy Week. True humility is chosen, before it comes to knock us down. Humility is intentional. Not dramatically tripping and falling, but choosing to make ourselves loving servants of one another.

Jesus chose to be humble, to show us what love is. It wasn’t forced on Him. He is the perfect example, the One who does loving things in secret, who does not boast or rule over others, who shatters our ideas of what it means to serve. This loving humble person, the Christ, is the one we meet this evening in Holy Unction.

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.”

Every day is a new chance to choose humility and pray for healing. Every day, God calls us to an ever-deepening awareness of where we fall short. And even if we are not as aware as we should be, the good news is God knows the depths of our hearts, and God humbly enters therein. Amen.