Neighborly Unction

Tonight, many Orthodox will gather as a community to receive the Sacrament of Unction. A late addition to Holy Week services, unction “is offered to all who are sick in body, mind, or spirit.”

Holy UnctionThe seven Gospel readings reflect the open invitation of God. Jesus’ answer to the question, ‘who is my neighbor’ is that your neighbor is the one you treat as such (Luke 10:25-37). Jesus picks Zacchaeus out of the crowd, the tax collector whose sin is evident to all (Luke 19:1-10). Jesus sends his disciples out to freely give healing and teaching to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:1 & 10:5-8). Jesus calls us to unlimited forgiveness (Matthew 8:14-23, and, in St. John Chrysostom’s interpretation of the wise and foolish virgins, condemns our failure to use our gifts for the benefit of others (Matthew 25:1-13. The Syrophoenician woman is honored precisely because she understood that there is no limit to the abundance of God (Matthew 15:21-28). The gospel readings conclude with Jesus’ divine insistence: “‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:9-13).

Each scripture reading is followed by a prayer over the oil (elaion in Greek) which appeals to God’s mercy (eleos in Greek) and compassion for sins both “voluntary and involuntary.”

We pray to You and entreat You, O God; in Your goodness, loose, remit, and forgive the sins and transgressions of Your servants, both voluntary and involuntary, in knowledge and in ignorance, trespass and disobedience, at night and during the day; whether they be under the curse of a priest or a parent; whether they feasted their eyes, indulged their sense of smell, touched and gratified themselves, or tasted fornication; or through whatever impulse of the flesh and of the spirit they have alienated themselves from Your will, and from Your holiness. — The Sixth Prayer

A short internet search on the theology of this service shows the discomfort caused by these words. We are reassured (warned?) that the sacrament is still limited to believers. True healing can only be had by those who recognize their need for healing, the repentant sick. Unction “is given to those who receive the call of Christ to take up their Cross; for in receiving the sacrament of Holy Unction, we are in effect receiving the call to take up our Cross and follow Christ.” In a disturbing (disturbing because it is a rare occurrence in Orthodox theology) echo of “name it and claim it” theology, God may heal “if the faith of the believers is strong enough….” We are told that in the 5th century Pope Innocent I addressed the sacrament of Unction, reminding us that it is for sick believers and that it may not be granted to those “undergoing ecclesiastical penance” since it is not logical to offer one sacrament to a person who has been denied the rest.1

This last bit is fascinating: as far back as we have had a rite offering the healing of God we have had the question: who may receive it?

The tension arises from the prayers themselves. In his sermon, I was overjoyed to hear a priest, reflecting on the prayers he had just read before us all, answer by saying, “if you are in need, if you desire the healing of God, come forward.”

Read the prayer above, again. Even those “under the curse of a priest” (I have also heard it read, “under the ban of a priest”) may receive the sacrament. This is stated not once, but twice, in the sixth and the seventh prayers. The prayers themselves offer healing to those who are denied other sacraments. The pre-requisite for receiving the healing of God is not a proper confession, “being a member in good standing”, having the right amount of faith, agreeing to bear one’s cross, or even knowledge that one has sinned (note “involuntary” and “in ignorance”),2 but the desire to be healed. The desire to receive, without precondition.

How tragic that so much ‘ink’ is spilled by Orthodox on explaining this away, on justifying the limits to the mercy and healing the Church will offer in the name of God. How ironic given that the first Gospel reading is not about who is our neighbor, but to whom will we be a neighbor. The Samaritan was not a member of the beaten man’s community. He did not need to pick up the wounded man and pour mercy on his wounds. The Samaritan freely and indiscriminately offered healing to those in need.

The constant play on the words ‘oil’ — elaion — and ‘mercy’ — eleos is striking since the hymns which precede the scripture readings and prayers revolve around the unmerciful Judas. Anticipating the events of Thursday, we are reminded today that Judas witnessed the unction of Jesus by an unwelcome woman and was consumed by greed. We are also reminded that Jesus washed Judas’ feet. We are told that Judas’ hands received bread from the very hands which fashioned humankind. We are supposed to leave these hymns understanding that Judas is the betrayer of both Christ and himself. His fear and sickness (yes, greed/avarice is described as a ’sickness’) led him to hang himself. Judas is contrasted with Christ through whom God is merciful and compassionate. Judas witnessed the mercy and compassion of God in Christ and is angered, filled with jealousy, and responds with violence, an attempted final exclusion.

And yet, Jesus fed Judas. Even knowing of his betrayal, of his ‘sickness,’ Jesus fed Judas.

Today, some will forgo this service, knowing that they will be turned away by the priest. They are under a ban because they are perceived as sick with sin. They will be excluded in the name of protecting the sacrament, of preserving the purity of the community, of not confusing the faithful. Some, so craving healing will go to a parish where their anonymity will allow them to come forward and receive the mercy of God. In both cases, the healing offered is tinged with exclusion, with judgement, with betrayal, with the failure of the Church to be a neighbor.

For those who wish the freedom to offer this sacrament to all, or who receive the sacrament in sadness knowing that not all your sisters and brothers may join you, offer your mercy. Remember, the first person to anoint Christ was a woman, unordained and excluded from her community.


  1. I do not actually know the source of this quote, only that it is ubiquitous when explaining ‘closed unction.’ 
  2. The Orthodox theology of sin is about “missing the mark.” Our “mark” is to become fully human, that is, is to love the other as God loves the other. Sin does not require a willful (involuntary) and informed (in ignorance) choice. 

3 thoughts on “Neighborly Unction

  1. Reblogged this on Canonically Irregular and commented:
    As a graduate student, I had to be on campus all day, so I could not attend my regular parish. I attended the nearby Greek Orthodox cathedral instead. I followed the protocol of introducing myself to the priest beforehand and letting him know my parish affiliation. I received a warm welcome from the priest, but the fact that I did not feel comfortable simply showing up unannounced and presenting myself for holy unction is telling

  2. I find it quite telling that the idea of banning people from unction goes against the actual prayers and words of the service itself. Do the priests know what they’re praying? Do they actually believe in what they’re doing by those prayers? Or do they count on the banned people to not show up and hear that, according to the service, they aren’t banned after all.

    The words of St. John Chrysostom’s Paschal homily have the same effect, forcing an uncomfortable conflict between what we hear and pray and what we actually do and ignore or explain away.

    • I am constantly struck by the difference between what we pray and what we teach. This is true whether it is about restricting participation in the sacraments or anthropological issues or … the list goes on.

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