Anointing of the Sick

"Is there any sick man among you? Let him send for the elders of the Church and let them pray over him. The prayer offered in faith will save the sick man and the Lord will raise him from his bed, and he will be forgiven any sins he has committed" (James 5:14-15).

St. James describes the anointing of the sick, providing the apostolic foundations for the sacrament of unction, or more properly, “the anointing of the sick.” In keeping with the biblical injunction, the Orthodox order for the celebration of this sacrament calls for a group of presbyters to be present at it but this requirement is only of secondary importance. Nor is it required that the person receiving the sacrament be seriously ill as some have supposed. Bodily healing as well as the forgiveness of sins are the primary purposes of this sacrament and only in cases of immanent death can it be considered a preparation for it.

Orthodox theology has always stressed the unity of body and soul and this means that there can be no sharp dichotomy between physical and spiritual; the readings and prayers used in the rite of anointing of the sick certainly do not assume that physical healing is assured framework of repentance. The anointing symbolizes ultimate pardon in the face of sickness and even death, physical results of the spiritual disease of sinfulness. Anointing of sick itself has frequently been associated with penance as a single action and in some instances it has even superseded penance. The popular public celebrations of unction on Holy Wednesday in the practice in many Orthodox churches. Anointing is meaningless without true contrition.

Written by Tenny Thomas


[1] Andrew Cuschieri, Anointing of the Sick: A Theological and Canonical Study (Lanham, 1993).
[2] Paul Meyendorff, Anointing of the Sick, (New York, 2009).
[3] Bernhard Poschmann, Penance and the Anointing of the Sick, trans. Francis Courtney (New York, 1964).