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Holy Unction

Two women were talking softly in church near the candle box. The younger one complained, "I am ill for a long time. I am visiting doctors, but almost of no avail. Now I decided to follow the advice of my acquaintances to receive extreme unction." Her interlocutor got frightened, "How can you, darling, you are married, aren’t you?" — "Yes, I am" — "So you cannot receive extreme unction, you will have to give up sleeping with your husband after it."

Accidentally I overheard the conversation and thought it my duty to intervene. I began proving that there are no rules prohibiting marital relations between spouses after the extreme unction. My words seemed convincing and the older woman said, "We know nothing. And those old grandmas sometimes tell us such a lot of various thing that we get confused."

Indeed the Mystery of extreme unction is the one most misunderstood and surrounded with many superstitions. Some elderly ladies who consider themselves experts of the Church canon rules would sometimes tell you incredible things! They say that one should not wash oneself after the extreme unction, that one should not eat meat, one should fast on Mondays; and moreover, that this Mystery can be received only by the dying. All that is not true.

The Mystery of extreme unction or anointing, as called in the sacred books, was introduced by the Lord, Jesus Christ. When reading Mathew’s Gospel we learn that the Apostles preaching in Palestine, anointed the sick with oil and healed them. The essence of this mystery is most completely disclosed by the Apostle James: "Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church and pray over him and anoint him and with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven" (Jas 5:14-15).

So, the extreme unction is the Mystery of healing. An Orthodox writer of the 19th century E. Poselyanin wrote: "It was not mentioned anywhere that a person should be terminally sick or helpless. We should remember that in Christianity the suffering of the soul is also considered to be an ailment...Thus, if I am suffering spiritually because some one in the family died, if I am sorrowful, if I need some good impulse to pull myself together and shake the shackles of despair from myself, — I can resort to the extreme unction."

But in physical illnesses a person should also turn to God with prayer, not relying on the physician alone, as the latter is just a tool in the hands of God.

Usually the extreme unction is performed in the house at the bed of a sick person, but during the Great Lent extreme unction is exercised in churches too. In the course of the Mystery performed by several priests ("Sobor" — congregation), unction — plant oil — is blessed; 7 Apostles and Gospels are read, 7 prayers. After reading each of them Father anoints heads, chests, hands and feet of those receiving the extreme unction. The extreme unction is the image of God’s mercy, love and compassion (remember the parable of the good Samaritan).

Besides healing from diseases the extreme unction grants us forgiveness of the forgotten sins (but not those that were concealed on purpose). Due to weakness of our memory we can remember not all of our sins during confession, that is why it is understood without saying that anointing is of great value to us. Physically healthy people can resort to the mystery of extreme unction only if permitted by the priest.

With Myrrh and Unction.

One of the names of the Savior — Christ — means "the anointed one." Anointing a person with the unction (plant oil) in ancient times testified to the fact that the person had devoted himself to serving God, that he is connected to the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Thus, Moses anointed Aaron and his sons, whom God assigned to become the clergy. (Exodus 40:15); Samuel anointed Saul as king (1 Samuel 9-10); Elijah anointed Elisha to succeed him as a prophet (1 Kings. 19:15).

After Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended upon the New Testament Church, extreme unction became accessible to all its members. Nowadays people are anointed in front of the baptismal font and during all-night vigils.

Baptismal anointing with the myrrh (Chrismation) of the forehead, chest, ears, hands and feet has several meanings. Firstly, it denotes unity with Christ similar to joining of an uncultivated branch grafted to a fruitful olive tree; secondly, it speaks about the death to sin as earlier the dead people were given extreme unction; thirdly, it give energy and strength to fight sin by analogy with the ancient wrestlers who put oil on their bodies before fighting. While anointing the priest says, "The servant of God, (name) is anointed with the unction of joy in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now and ever and onto ages of ages. Amen."

Anointing with holy oil during the vigil on the eve of a holiday is given to all the faithful as a blessing to them, their further good deeds. It is done with prayerful invocation to the one in whose honor the service is performed.

Distinction should be made between simple anointing and the Sacrament of Holy Unction, which is given to a sick person. In the latter case the oil is sanctified with a special prayer and the body of the suffering is anointed 7 times.

There is another anointing in the Church that is a mystical by essence — Anointing with sacred myrrh, which is an aromatic preparation made of many substances (plant oil, aloe, smyrna, rose oil, ground marble etc.). The abundance of components symbolizes the multitude of Christian virtues. According to the Church canon the Myrrh is to be sanctified by a bishop or several bishops. In church the sanctified myrrh is kept on the altar in the Sanctuary.

Anointing with myrrh takes place right after a person is baptized. The priest puts a drop of myrrh on the forehead, nostrils, lips, hands and feet of a newly baptized person each time saying: "The seal of the Gift of the Holy Spirit. Amen." We receive this mystery only once in life, like baptism. It is only the God-anointed kings that were deemed worthy to receive it twice.

It is known that a layman would have the right to baptize only when it is a "matter of life and death." But if there is no more danger of dying and the person stayed alive, the performed procedure should be followed by myrrh anointing. The same mystery is practiced when a member of some other Slavic Christian confession is converted into Orthodoxy.

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