This post is the last in a series about the sacraments of the Orthodox Christian Church. In this post, we will look at the Orthodox Christian Sacrament of Holy Unction.
When we hear the words “Holy Unction,” we may immediately think of the special service during Holy Week in which the Holy Oil is set apart and blessed. That is an important time in the life of the Church, for all of Her members are invited to participate in the sacrament of Holy Unction for the healing of their souls and bodies during that service. But there is much more to Holy Unction than that service! The Orthodox Study Bible defines Unction as “anointing of the sick with blessed oil, for the healing of body and soul. The gift of healing is bestowed by the Holy Spirit through the anointing, together with the prayers of the Unction service.” (1, pp. 1789-1790)
Holy Unction is an important sacrament, for healing is really what the Church is about. Our Lord Himself came to earth in the first place to “bear our infirmities,” not just of body, but also of soul. He brought healing to many in his years on earth, and He continues to heal (body and soul) through the Church, especially in the sacrament of Holy Unction.
Father Thomas Hopko, in his writings about the sacraments, calls the sacrament of Unction “the Church’s specific prayer for healing.” He says, “If the faith of the believers is strong enough, and if it is the will of God, there is every reason to believe that the Lord can heal those who are diseased.” (2)
Fr. Thomas writes that the primary purpose of Holy Unction is healing of the physical body and of mental ills, but also healing of the spirit through forgiveness. “Holy unction is the sacrament of the spiritual, physical, and mental healing of a sick person whatever the nature or the gravity of the illness may be.” (2) He reminds us that “the proper context of the sacrament” is to pray “that God’s will be done always,” and reminds us that “it is not always the will of God that there should be physical healing.” (2) Sometimes the healing granted through Unction is a physical healing, but always – and more importantly – we pray for spiritual healing; that is, sanctification and union with Christ.
It is a fact that we will all die eventually. Because of this, the healing of the sick is not the final goal of Holy Unction: for even those who experience healing through this sacrament will at some point die. Instead, Fr. Thomas writes that Holy Unction is an instrument that God uses to show us his mercy and to extend the life of some people so that they can live to glorify Him.
When the time for death comes, the Orthodox Church has special prayers to aid the person experiencing the separation of their soul and body. But the Church does not reserve Holy Unction just for that point in one’s life, as some Christian churches practice. “Orthodoxy does not view this Sacrament as available only to those who are near death. It is offered to all who are sick in body, mind, or spirit.” (3)
Glory to God for His gift of the sacrament of Holy Unction!
1. Various editors. (2008). The Orthodox Study Bible. USA: St. Athanasius Academy of Orthodox Theology. (available here: http://store.ancientfaith.com/osb-hardcover)
- Hopko, Fr. Thomas (2011, October 5). The Sacraments: Holy Unction. Retrieved from https://oca.org/orthodoxy/the-orthodox-faith/worship/the-sacraments/holy-unction
- Fitzgerald, Rev. Fr. Thomas (1985, June 11). Understanding the Sacraments of the Orthodox Church. Retrieved from https://www.goarch.org/-/the-sacraments.
Here are resources that you may find helpful as you prepare to help your Sunday Church School class study this important sacrament. What resources have you found helpful? Comment below and share them with the community!
The Teaching Pics ( http://ww1.antiochian.org/christianeducation/teachingpics) offer a picture (pic S20) and description of Holy Unction that can be very helpful as you teach a lesson on the subject to any age group. Find the teaching pics here: http://orthodoxchristianed.com/files/4114/9885/4473/ocec2017_2018.pdf
For classes with younger students, find activities here that you can print and use in class, as well as suggestions of discussions students could have at home to continue their learning about the sacrament of Holy Unction: http://orthodoxsundayschool.org/epistles-feasts-and-sacraments/3-5-years-old/holy-unction-0
Find lesson plans on the sacrament of Holy Unction at various age levels, here:
Find a printable comic-style explanation of Holy Unction for kids here: https://raisingorthodoxchristians.com/2018/04/03/holy-unction-explanation-for-kids/
Find activity ideas to can help students of various ages learn about the Holy Unction service in the context of Holy Week, on the Holy Wednesday portion of this page: http://illumination-learning.com/main/project/holy-week/
Older students who are studying the sacrament of Holy Unction may find this summary of the Holy Unction service interesting:
“Introductory Prayers and Psalms 143 & 51
In these Psalms we confess our sinfulness before God and ask Him to cleanse us and make a ‘new and right spirit within us’ (Psalm 51:10).
In this series of verses that are read or sung, we ask God to show mercy upon us and cleanse our souls, to drive away all evil powers, to grant salvation to those who are sick or suffering, and to grant us the healing of our souls and bodies. At the end of several sets of verses, we ask God to renew our lives so that we may bless, thank and glorify Him forever.
Short Prayers or Troparia to the Saints
We pray to the saints – especially those who have helped the sick and suffering, and to those who have been martyred for the glory of God – and to the Mother of God to intercede for us for the salvation of our souls.
Epistle and Gospel Lessons and Prayers
There are seven sets of Epistle and Gospel readings and prayers.
a. James 5:10-16; Luke: 10:25-37
b. Romans 15:1-7; Luke 19:1-10
c. I Corinthians 12:27-31;13:1-8; Matthew 10:1,5-8
d. II Corinthians 6:16-18, 7:1; Matthew 8:14-23
e. II Corinthians 1:8-11; Matthew 25:1-13
f. Galatians 5:22-6:2; Matthew 15:21-28
g. I Thessalonians 5:14-23; Matthew 9:9-13
Each of the seven prayers asks for the remission of the our sins, for the healing of our souls and bodies and for life everlasting.” (from https://www.goarch.org/holyunction)
Consider allowing enough class time for the students to look up each gospel reading (and epistle, as well, if there’s time!) to search for how it is related to healing/Holy Unction. After a close look at these scriptures, the Holy Unction service during Holy Week will become even more special to the class!