Homily Service of Unction

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, amen.  Glory to Jesus Christ.  Glory forever!

“Is anyone among you sick? 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. 15 And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.”

          The Church loves anointing with oil for any number of things, it seems.  Today we might not understand the full significance of oil, well olive oil at least.   For our ancestors, especially from the Middle-East and the Mediterranean, though, olive oil was a staple of life.  Oil was (and still is) a staple food product.  It appears that just about everything had olive oil in it to some degree or another.  It was also the basis of medicine as well.  It served a cosmetic purpose, and it served a religious function in both the anointing of kings, prophets and priests.

          The Church makes a beautiful linguistic connection between oil and the Lord; and this one only shows up if we look at the words for oil and mercy in Greek.  Eleos, mercy and Elaion, oil, are almost identical in sound.  Indeed sometimes when in some words that use the sound eleon, one could be hard-pressed to tell which base word is being used.  I’ve heard people say that the polyeleos sung in Matins refers to the abundant oil in the lamps that were often lit up and spun while it was sung.  Others have said it refers to the many mercies of God that the psalm tells of.  Both are, I think, right because in the mind of the Church it is God’s mercy that is the staple of our lives.  God’s mercy is the oil of life.

          One of the readings for today’s service is that of the Good Samaritan.  In the parable, the Samaritan pours oil and wine into the wounds of the wounded man.  As I have said the Fathers teach us that the word for mercy in Greek has the same root as the word for oil.  When we hear that the Samaritan/Christ pours oil into the wounds, we can interpret that as God’s mercy being poured into his wounds.  The oil keeps the wound soft; the edges do not harden and become painful scars or worse, do not heal at all.  The mercy of God promotes the healing.  Whenever we hear the words Lord have mercy, whenever we say these words, we should remember this image of the healing oil of God’s mercy.  We can also look at the other uses for oil in the Church: the oil of gladness, the oil of Chrismation which seals us with the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and as already noted the anointing of kings and priests and prophets in the Old Testament.  When we say to God, Lord have mercy, we are not asking for a judicial mercy alone, but also healing, and anointing…ultimately to make us partakers of the divine nature as St. Peter writes.

          There are many interpretations of what oil means for the Fathers.  Each one is added to the other and does not take away from the other, but adds more depth to the already deep theological heritage that we can claim.  Blessed Theophylact sees in the oil of this parable Christ’s mercy, his humanity, his gentle teaching.  In the wine, he sees the Lord’s more difficult teachings, but he also sees in the wine the divinity of Christ which cleanses and purifies wounds but which can also be sharp and hard to take alone.  He writes in his commentary on Luke:

We can compare Christ’s divinity to the wine, which no one could tolerate if it were poured onto a wound, unless it were tempered with oil, that is, accompanied by His humanity.  Therefore, since Christ has saved us both by His divinity and by His humanity, this is why it is said that oil and wine were poured out.  At every baptism those who are baptized are delivered from wounds of the soul when they are chrismated with the oil and myrrh and then immediately commune of the divine Blood.

          And so, we can see in the parable of the Good Samaritan an image, an icon, of our Lord’s own saving work by His incarnation.  I mention the wine that was poured into the wounds by the Good Samaritan because in the Great Church of Constantinople the oil used for this service tonight was mixed with wine as the rubrics point out.

          There is another image used in tonight’s service that bears looking at as well.  The word “wash” or “cleanse” shows up often throughout the canon as well as in the famous psalm of repentance, Psalm 50:  “wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity” we hear.    “Thou shalt wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.”  It is interesting to note that the word for wash used here and elsewhere in the canon is not the one that comes to mind at first.  We think of bodily cleansing, washing with soap and water in a nice tub.  Well, perhaps a tub would be involved but it’s a laundry tub that is being invoked.  The word used for washing is the word for laundering clothes.  As far as Psalm 50 is concerned that is true for the Hebrew word as well.  Considering that laundry was done back then by pounding it on a rock or beating it in a trough, it sometimes gives us pause as to whether we really want to be washed!  Perhaps we could almost paraphrase this request for washing as “Lord knock some sense into me.”  The term, “the bones which have been humbled shall rejoice” is found almost immediately after the request for the Lord to wash us.  It could be that they are linked.  We hear in the prayer of the fifth priest tonight, “O Lord our God, Who chastenest and again healest…”  We are told that the Lord chastens those Whom He loves.  Sometimes, not always I am quick to add, sometimes illness can be a chastening as well as a means of bringing us closer to God, by reminding us of our weakness or of our sins; and this brings us to repentance and healing. “And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.” St. James wrote and we quote again.

          St. Paul wrote in 2nd Corinthians, “For we do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, of our trouble which came to us in Asia: that we were burdened beyond measure, above strength, so that we despaired even of life. 9 Yes, we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves but in God who raises the dead, 10 who delivered us from so great a death, and does deliver us; in whom we trust that He will still deliver us…” The point is that we can use our illness, our “washing” so to speak, as a means of redemption and remembering that our own strength will not save us, but the power of God will.  It is important to note that we do not suffer alone, though.  Christ has suffered alongside us and indeed for us in ways that we can scarcely imagine.  If we are chastened, know that we are loved even more.  If the wine of Christ’s divinity is hard for us to bear within our wounds, know that the oil of His humanity and His mercy are there to temper and soothe our hurts and wounds.  When we are comforted, we too can comfort others.  This is also a theme of the anointing.  St. James tells us to go the Elders of the Church to receive anointing.  St. James tells us the prayers of the righteous avail much.  We also hear these words in 2nd Corinthians just before Paul speaks of his troubles: 

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. 5 For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also abounds through Christ….. And our hope for you is steadfast, because we know that as you are partakers of the sufferings, so also you will partake of the consolation.

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, amen.  Glory to Jesus Christ!  Glory  forever!





©2009 Fr. Philip Kontos