The Evangelists tell us that our Lord Jesus Christ from the very beginning of His public life showed His merciful love and compassion toward the sick and the suffering who were seeking His help. And St. Matthew assures us that Jesus “cured every disease and illness.” (Mt. 9:35) In other words, Jesus considered the healing of the sick as a part of His messianic mission (Is. 61 :1), and afterward He entrusted this healing mission also to His disciples. (Mt. 10:8)
Christ’s mission did not stop at mere bodily healing, for the primary concern of His mission was the healing of the souls, the salvation of the world. Hence, He instituted a special sacrament, the Anointing of the Sick, which is one of the seven Holy Mysteries of salvation entrusted to the Church.
1. The Holy Mystery of Anointing was foreshadowed by the ministry of healing, entrusted to the Apostles by Jesus himself, as recorded by St. Mark: “And they (the Apostles) anointed many sick people with oil, and healed them.” (Mr. 6:13) In these words of the Evangelist some theologians see the origin of the Holy Mystery (Sacrament) of Anointing. The promulgation of the Holy Anointing came by St. James the Apostle, saying :
“Is anyone among you sick? Let him summon the presbyters of the Church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed any sins, they will be forgiven him.” (Jm. 5:14-15)
According to the interpreters of the Scriptures, by these words St. James transmitted the apostolic practice concerning the administration of the Anointing of the Sick as it was instituted by Jesus Christ (“in the name of the Lord”).
2. Since the beginning, the Holy Anointing of the Sick was administered privately, hence in the writings of the Church Fathers during the first centuries of Christianity it was mentioned only incidentally, without any doctrinal explanation. For the first time the Anointing is mentioned at the end of the first century in the so-called Teachings of the Twelve Apostles (cf. Didache, 10). At the end of the second century it is mentioned, again only incidentally, by St. Iraeneus in his book Against Heresies (b. I, ch . 21).
In the third century it was Origen (+ 255) who first quoted the Epistle of St. James to support his doctrine on the holy anointing (cf. Migne, Patrologia Graeca, vol. XII, coil. 417-418). And in the fourth century it was St. Athanasius the Great (+ 373) who alluded to the anointing in his commentary on the Psalms (cf. Migne, P. G., XXVII, 405). The Syrian writer Aphraat (+ 345) presented the anointing already as “the Mystery of life” (cf. Demonstrations, 23). Also, St. John Chrysostom (+ 407) explained the “anointing of faith” with the words of St. James (cf. Migne, P G., XLVII, 584). Thus, by the fourth century, the doctrine and the administration of the Holy Anointing of the Sick were already firmly established.
Starting with the fifth century the Church Fathers, such as St. Augustine (+ 430), St. Cyril of Alexandria (+ 444), Victor of Antioch (5th c.), and others, treat the Mystery of Holy Oil (Greek : Euchelaion) already with greater deliberation and detail, considering it as a complement of Penance. The first complete presentation of the Holy Anointing as Mystery (Sacrament) was made by Pope St. Innocent I ( + 417), in his epistle to Bishop Decentius, which also includes an authentic interpretation of the scriptural text of St. James (cf. Migne, Patrologia Latina, XX, 559-560).
In view of these and many other testimonies, the apostolic origin and constant practice of the Church in administering the Holy Anointing to the sick can be safely upheld and defended . In the early Lives of the Saints, like in the Life of St. Hypatius ( + 446) or the Life of St. Eutichius ( + 582), we actually read that they, before passing to a better life, received the Holy Anointing with great devotion and contrition of heart.
3. The ritual of the Holy Anointing, as administered in the Byzantine Church, reaches back to the eighth century (ct. J. Goar, Euchologion, Venice 1730, reprinted Graz 1960). According to Goar, the individual prayers of the ritual are much older and are in use also by the other Eastern Churches.
The most ancient prayer for the “blessing of the oil of the sick” is from the first half of the fourth century, and was preserved in the recently discovered Euchologion of Serapius, bishop of Thmuis near Alexandria. A similar prayer can be found in the work of Syrian origin entitled: the Apostolic Constitutions, from the end of the fourth century (cf. Migne, P. G., I, 1125). Both these prayers indicate that by the fourth century the Holy Anointing was already administered by the entire Church.
According to the tradition, previously also followed by the Western Churches, the Holy Anointing was conferred by several priests in accordance with the words of St. James: ” Let him summon the presbyters of the Church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oi!.” Through the centuries the number of the priests varied . In the Byzantine rite the custom prevailed to call up to seven priests (if available), since in the Bible the number seven is considered a ” perfect number” (comp. Is. 11 :2-3; 2 Kgs. 5:14; Acts 21 :26-27).
Because of scarsity of priests, it is generally admitted that even one priest is sufficient to administer the Holy Mystery of Anointing, even in the Byzantine rite. Our present abbreviated form of ritual was approved by the Holy See, and it reflects the ritual codified by Metropolitan Peter Mohyla of Kiev in 1646 (cf. P. Mohyla, Trebnyk, Kiev 1646).
4. The ritual of the Anointing begins with the series of prayers, including the Our Father, which constitute the so-called Customary Beginning. These are followed by Psalm 142 (143). describing conficence in the Lord at time of distress. Then the Ekteny of Peace is recited with two special petitions, imploring Almighty God to send down the Holy Spirit, first to sanctify the oil, then to sanctify the sick. The introductory part of the ritual ends with the blessing of oil to be used in anointing .
The central part of the ritual starts with scriptural readings, introduced by the Prokimenon : ” May your kindness, 0 Lord, be upon us, who have placed our hope in you.” (Ps. 33 :22) The Epistle is taken from that of St. James, telling us about the anointing (Jm. 5 :10-16). Then the Gospel is read, describing the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10:25-37). The Gospel is followed by the Insistent Ekteny, imploring God “for mercy, life, peace, health, salvation, (divine) visitation, and forgiveness of sins” of the sick, that the Lord “send upon him (her) the grace of deliverance from illness, raising him (her) from his (her) sickbed.”
The actual anointing of sick is preceded by a short prayer, invoking the power of the Holy Spirit to descend upon the blessed oil and make it for the sick person “a perfect deliverance from his (her) sins and an inheritance of the kingdom of heaven.” (cf. Prayer on back cover). Then, dipping his finger into the holy oil, the priest, reciting the Prayer of the Anointing (ct. back cover). anoints the sick person on the forehead (the seat of bad thoughts), the five external senses (eyes, ears, nostrils, lips and hands) as organs of sensuality, the chest as the seat of the heart (“From the heart comes all evil” – says the Lord, Mt. 15 :19), and the feet, leading us astray on the path of iniquity. All these must be healed by the divine grace, since they hide in themselves the ” remnants of sin.” Thus, according to the teaching of some Fathers, the soul of sick persons becomes completely purified as it was at the time of the Baptism.
After the anointing, to make Jesus mystically present, the Gospel Book is placed over the head of the sick, while the priest is entreating “the merciful Lord” to forgive his or her sins. This is done in conformity with the words of St. James: “If he (the sick person) has committed any sins he (she) will be forgiven.” (Jm. 5:15) Thus, in case the sick person is unable to confess his or her sins on account of impaired speech or lack of memory, the Holy Anointing becomes the sacrament of salvation, forgiving sins, provided the sick person has at least habitual sorrow for his (her) sins.
5. Following the ritual of the Holy Anointing we can clearly perceive all the spiritual benefits of this Holy Mystery. It not only increases sanctifying grace in the soul of the sick person (through the descent of the Holy Spirit), but also delivers him (her) from all the remnants of sin. In case of emergency, it even substitutes for Penance, forgiving sins.
The Anointing also brings to the sick a spiritual comfort and relief in his (her) sufferings, inspiring him or her to turn to the merciful goodness of God with all confidence and trust . Thus, the sick is encouraged to endure more patiently his (her) sufferings and to resist with greater determination all the temptations and assaults of the evil one. In other words, the Holy Anointing confers to the sick a special, so-called sacramental grace of spiritual strength and endurance.
In some instances the Holy Anointing obtains even a physical healing of the sick, when it is advantageous for the person’s salvation. Of course, bodily healing is not a primary purpose of this sacrament. But when it does occur, it shows in a visible way the working of Christ’s merciful love through the Holy Mysteries (Sacraments) instituted by Him.
Through the Holy Anointing Jesus always comes to the sick and invites them to join Him in their sufferings, according to the exalted example of St. Paul: “I rejoice in my sufferings, since in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ on behalf of his Church.” (Col. 1 :14) In return, Jesus extends His divine help to sick persons to bear more patiently their sufferings in union with His own. And in case of their dying, Jesus is ready to take them with himself to heaven, as He promised the repentant thief: “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise!” (Lk. 23:43)
Let us then remember: “Blessed are those who die in the Lord!” (Rev. 14:13) On the Front Cover: The Healing of a Paralytic (Mt. 9:6-7).