Holy Wednesday: Sacrament of the Holy Unction

Written by Marisa Hazakis

On the afternoon or evening of Holy Wednesday, the church offers the Sacrament of the Holy Unction for the healing of the body and soul and for forgiveness of sins.

The Sacrament of the Holy Unction is the church’s specific prayer for healing of body, mind and spirit. Although it can be performed at anytime during the year, the service is offered during Holy Week because of the need for forgiveness and spiritual healing in preparation for Anastasi (Resurrection). The tradition of receiving Unction on Holy Wednesday commemorates the anointing of Christ with myrrh by a sinful woman. Her sins were forgiven because of her penitence and the faithful are urged to do the same.

The biblical basis for the Sacrament is found in James 5: 13-15 which reads:

Is any one of you suffering? Let him pray. Is any one in good spirits? Let him sing a hymn. Is any one among you sick? Let him bring in the presbyters (leader or senior) of the Church and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he be in sin, they shall be forgiven him.

The Sacrament itself calls for seven priests, seven readings from the Epistles and Gospels, seven prayers (listed below) and seven anointings with oil specifically blessed during the service. Each of the seven prayers asks for the remission of our sins and for the healing of our souls and bodies:

  1. James 5:10-17, Luke 10:25-37
  2. Romans 15: 1- 7, Luke 19: 1-10
  3. I Corinthians 12:27-31; 13:1-8, Matthew 10:1,5-8
  4. II Corinthians 6:16-18, 7:1, Matthew 8:14-23
  5. II Corinthians 1:8-11, Matthew 25-1-13
  6. Galatians 5:22-6:2, Matthew 15:21-28
  7.  I Thessalonians 5:14-23, Matthew 9:9-13

Sacrament of the Holy Unction. Source: AnotherCity.org

The faithful should prepare for this service in a prayerful way as they do for Holy Communion and because of the repentant nature of the service, are encouraged to attend confession beforehand. At the end of the service the priest anoints the faithful with a cotton swab dipped in oil. He makes the sign of the cross on the forehead, cheeks, chin and front and back of the hands of each parishioner saying, “For the healing of soul and body.”

The Sacrament of the Holy Unction reminds us that when we are in pain, either physical, emotional or spiritual, Christ is present with us through the ministry of His Church. He is among us to offer strength to meet the challenges of life and even the approach of death.

You can watch a service for the Sacrament of the Holy Unction in English here and in Greek here.

Sources

  • Rouvelas, Marilyn, and George Papaioannou. A Guide to Greek Traditions and Customs in America. Nea Attiki Press, 2002.
  • “Greek Orthodox Holy Wednesday (Holy Unction) Religious Service Overview.” Greek Boston, 11 Mar. 2004, www.greekboston.com/religion/holy-wednesday-unction/.
  • ‌“Holy Week: An Explanation.” Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdioceseww1.antiochian.org/1175027131. Accessed 14 Apr. 2020.
  • “Holy Unction.” Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, www.goarch.org/holyunction. Accessed 15 Apr. 2020.
  • “Anointing of the Sick.” Wikipedia, 26 Mar. 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anointing_of_the_sick#Eastern_Orthodox_Church.‌