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Sin, Sickness and Holy Unction

by Father Christopher

We thank Thee, O Lord our God, who art good and lovest mankind, the Physician of our souls and bodies, who painlessly hast borne our infirmities, by whose stripes we have all been healed, Thou good Shepherd, who didst come to seek the wandering sheep; who givest consolation to the faint-hearted, and life unto those who are broken of heart...who takest away the sins of the world, and wast nailed to the cross; we beseech Thee, and entreat Thee, in Thy goodness loose, remit, forgive, O God, the errors of Thy servant, N., and his iniquities whether voluntary or involuntary, whether of knowledge or ignorance, whether of excess or of disobedience...

From the Service of Holy Unction

Christianity is first and foremost a confession about Jesus Christ. This Christ is the crucified Word of God who took flesh from the virgin Mary. This Christ voluntarily endured the cross for our salvation. It is on this cross that His full divinity was made manifest, for it was here that He most profoundly displayed His power. As we sing on Great and Holy Friday, "When Thou wast crucified, O Christ, the tormentor was overcome, the power of the enemy was shattered; for neither Angel nor man, but the Lord Himself hath saved us: Glory to Thee." Christ came to establish His Kingdom on earth. Healing of sickness is part of this kingdom. When Christ sent out the seventy He commanded them to heal and preach the kingdom. "And he called his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every infirmity...And preach as you go saying, 'The kingdom of heaven is at hand.' Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons" (Mt. 10:1,7-8). If we are to understand the Christian view of sickness and sin, we must first come to terms with Jesus Christ.

The introductory quote gives us insight into Christ as the suffering servant from Isaiah 53. Christ has "borne our griefs and carried our sorrows," He was "wounded for our transgressions," and it is "by His stripes that we are healed" (Is. 53:45). The most profound part of Christ's suffering is that He did it voluntarily and without complaint. "He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth" (Is. 53:7). Christ, in the garden of Gethsemani before his passion said, "Father if thou art willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but Thine be done" (Lk. 22:42). Clearly, Christ, in facing his suffering, transforms it into victory over death and sin.

As Christians, how are we to understand sickness and the suffering that comes from prolonged illness? How also are we to understand sin in relation to this? The service for the anointing of the sick, Holy Unction, provides a pedagogical tool for understanding the meaning of our suffering. At this point we should remember that all the sacraments of the church are a real participation in the life of the Kingdom here and now. Holy Unction is a transformation of sickness into the victory of the cross. When someone is sick, they experience tremendous loss and disconnection. They become subject to their body's frailty. This can lead to a crisis of faith and a break in relationships. So what does the church do? She refers all of it to Christ in order for it to be transformed in the light of the cross. The oil that is used in the anointing is referred to as a light that illumines. "With the lamp of light divine, in thy mercy make bright, through this Unction, O Christ, him who now, in faith, maketh haste to Thy mercy."

Sickness is the weakness of the body as a result of the sin of the world. Sickness is not the punishment from God of personal sinful behavior, per se. We all share in the consequences of sin in this world. There is a definite connection between the two. Death is the result of sin (Ro. 6:23), and sickness is the body slowly wearing down to its eventual physical death. The seven prayers from the Holy Unction service suggest this connection. "Look down and hear us, Thine unworthy servants, and wheresoever in Thy great name we shall bring this oil, send down the gift of healing, and remission of sins: and heal him, in the multitude of Thy mercies." We also find this connection in scripture. In the first of the seven epistle readings we hear, "Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and them 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. The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects" (Js. 5:14-16). We also hear Christ say to the lame man, "Take heart, my son, your sins are forgiven," then, "Rise, take up your bed and go home" (Mt. 9:2,6).

If we remember that Christ came to establish His Kingdom we realize that true healing is the forgiveness of sins. As Christians we have already died and risen with Christ in our baptism. Death has been vanquished and trampled underfoot by Christ. The anointing of the sick always coincides with confession of sin. The second prayer from the unction service says,

Do Thou, O tender-hearted master, look down from the height of Thy sanctuary, overshadowing us sinners, who are also Thine unworthy servants, with the grace of the Holy Spirit, at this hour, and take up Thine abode in thy servant, N., who acknowledgeth his iniquities, and draweth near to Thee in faith; accepting him because of Thy love towards mankind, for giving him whatsoever he hath done amiss, whether by word, or deed, or thought, forgive him, cleanse him, make him pure from every sin; and abiding ever present with him, preserve him all the remaining years of his life; that, walking ever in Thy statutes, he may in no wise again become an object of malignant joy to the devil; and Thy holy name may be glorified in him.

The church recognizes this connection and prays in this way in order to refer all things back to the cross.

The service of Holy Unction reintegrates the sick one back into the church community through the confession of sin and anointing with oil for healing. Healing is primarily for spiritual healing. Physical healing is only temporary, for everyone who is physically healed eventually dies. For the Christian true death is not physical death, but spiritual death. This healing service of the church is for true spiritual healing. The meaning of suffering is changed in Christ. The healing that Christ offers is victory over this world and the devil. One of the prayers even mentions physical death as part of the spiritual healing, "that they who shall be anointed with this oil of regeneration may be terrible unto their adversaries, and may shine in the radiance of thy Saints, having neither spot or wrinkle; and that they may attain unto thy rest everlasting, and receive the prize of their high calling." And in the seventh prayer, "Because thou hast not created man for destruction, but for the keeping of thy commandments, and for inheritance of life incorruptible."

When someone is sick they can either loose their faith or find salvation through their suffering. The healing ministry that the Church offers is guiding the sick one to the cross in order to find victory. We all will face death. The question is, will it be a victory or not. Healing is not necessarily taking away the suffering, but it is through the suffering, through the cross that Christ power is made manifest. As St. Paul says to the Phillipian church, "that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that i, if possible, I may attain the resurrection from the dead" (Ph. 3:10-11). The anointing is a passage from this world into the Kingdom of God where death and suffering no longer win. The suffering is joined to the cross and becomes a martyrdom. The Christian who suffers well is the most profound witness of the church to the world. God can and does heal people physically, but what a greater testimony of Christ's victory than the martyrdom of redemptive suffering. We all must face the cross in this life, will it be a victory or the loss of salvation? St. Paul writes to the Corinthians about his own suffering, "Why, we felt that we had received the sentence of death; but that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead; He delivered us from so deadly a peril, and He will deliver us; on Him we have set our hope that He will deliver us again" (II Cor. 1: 9-10).

During the feast of the Elevation of the Cross the Church sings hymns to the cross that remind us of the healing power of Christ's death and resurrection:

Hail thou, guide of the blind, of the infirm the physician, the resurrection of all the departed, thou hast raised us up fallen into corruption, O honoured cross, whereby the curse hath been destroyed and the incorruption hath blossomed forth,we the earthly ones have become deified, and devil was hurled down altogether. Seeing thee today elevated by Bishop's hands, we exault Him that was elevated in thy midst, and we adore thee, richly deriving great mercy.

And in another hymn from the feast, "Today the cross of Christ doth issue forth and the faithful receive it with longing and obtain healings of both soul and body and deliverance from every malady." Also on the Sunday of the Cross in mid-lent we hear, "Thy Cross, O Lord, is holy, and brings healing to those who are in sickness through their sins." Clearly the cross is a victory over sin, sickness, and death.

The Sacrament of Holy Unction itself shows the connection between sickness and sin. Towards the end of the rite, the open Gospel is placed over the head of the one anointed and a prayer is recited that is very similar to a prayer from the the Rite of Confession:

I beseech and entreat Thy merciful com passion and love of mankind. O God our Saviour, who by the hand of the prophet Nathan didst give remission of his sins unto penitent David, and didst accept Manasses' prayer of contrition: do Thou, the same Lord, receive also with Thy wont ed tender love towards mankind, this Thy servant, N., who repenteth him of his transgressions, regarding not all his trespasses.

Clearly, the sacrament itself is connected to the confession of sin. Holy Unction presupposes confession of sins. Here the church keeps the mystery of sin and sickness intact. It is through participation in this rite that the sick one can be truly healed and referred back to the Church's joyous embrace, the sacrament of the Kingdom of God. Man is restored into his true condition which is in the image and likeness of God. It is truly through the might of the precious and life-giving Cross that the suffering one is transformed and healed in Christ. “Through the Cross, joy has come into all the world!”