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The Mystery of Anointment

When a man sins, he makes not only his soul, but his body sick. In order not to leave her children without help during heavy illness, the Holy Church offers the mystery of anointment. Through this mystery a penitent man receives the remission of sins and healing by the prayers of the Church and his own faith.

Some people think that the anointment is performed exclusively before death. Such practice once took place in the history of the Church. However this is a  and a Catholic misunderstanding (evident in the English term for it ‘extreme unction’ officially used by the Catholic church before 1972). In fact anointment is performed over sick people, including those with non-fatal illnesses. Another superstition of that if a person stays alive after the anointment he is in some sense excluded from the living ones. The very prayers included into the order of the anointment do not speak about the deathbed farewell but about the return to life – the life purified from sin and directed towards God. Therefore it is desirable to perform this mystery not when a person’s end is obviously approaching, but in a sickness, with faith that the days of the ill person will be prolonged so that he is able to change his life.

This is what the holy apostle James, brother of the Lord says:  Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him (James 4:14-16, KJV).

However it is wrong to think that the anointment even on the death bed may replace repentance. Holy Hierarch Arseny of Urals writes that the anointment can be an “addition on top of” the repentance, which helps to get rid of the forgotten and unperceived sins. But to conceal sins hoping on this Mystery means acting craftily.

We should say, that if the sick happens to pass away during the performing of the mystery of anointment, the mystery should be stopped. If a person dies a short time after the anointment, it is the tradition that the remains of the holy oil are poured upon his body during the funeral.

In the case of anointing of the dying person this mystery is performed in the house or room of the sick. Some old believers’ priests always anoint at the sick’s home. An old tradition also exists when the ones who are sick for a long time and severely are anointed three times in three months, after which they either heal or pass away to the Lord.

The order of the mystery of anointment is long and labor-consuming one. Sometimes the anointment is performed over a few people in a church simultaneously. To perform this mystery a table is put into the middle of the room or the church, and a holy cross is installed on the table together with the Gospel and a plate with wheat, into which 7 candles are put as an image of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit and 7 cotton wrapped matches for the anointment. The vessels with oil and wine are also put into the wheat. Wheat means consolation for the sick. Putting it before the eyes of the sick the Holy Church is as if saying, trying to console him: “As this wheat looks dry, but has the beginning of life in it, which can sprout in its time, the same way also your body, which is dried by illness, has the beginning of life in it, which, according to God’s will, can bloom now on earth or after the common judgment and resurrection”. 

The sick is anointed not only with oil, but with wine as well in the image of the Good Samaritan, who healed the wounds of the Jew beaten by the robbers with oil and wine (Lk.10:34).

The number 7 plays and important role in this mystery: it is performed by 7 priests (which is very rare in real life, because it is very difficult to gather this many priests together, therefore the mystery is usually performed by just one or two priests), 7 Gospel fragments are read, as well as 7 fragments from the Apostles and 7 prayers, in which the Church asks the forgiving of sins and the healing from the sickness; the sick is also anointed 7 times. All this has to do with the Old Testament event: the capture of Jericho. The firm walls of Jericho fell after Jews went 7 times around it carrying the Ark of the Covenant. In the same way the Church wishes for a turning-point in the severe sickness of the body to happen after it so to speak walks around the bed of the sick reading 7 Gospels, 7 Apostles and 7 prayers while 7 times anointing the sick.

The mystery is composed of: singing of prayer, blessing of oil and anointing. The prayer consists of the Canon for health and the absolution of the sins of the sick. The blessing of oil consists the great litany, prayer and singing of the troparia in the glory of the Saviour, the Mother of God and the saints. The anointing of the sick is performed after the reading of each of the 7 Gospel and Apostle fragments and prayer. Anointing, the priest says: “The blessing of the Lord God and our Saviour Jesus Christ for the healing of the soul and the body to God’s slave (Name) always and now” and so on. After every anointing he pronounces the prayer: “Holy Father, Healer to souls and bodies…” At the end of the anointment the priest opens the Gospel and puts it upon the head of the sick in the image of the hand of the Saviour, who healed the sick for the most part through touching them, and reads the prayer of absolution.