In the Byzantine Rite, the fullness of its prayer tradition can come across to outsiders (and even insiders) as repetitive or even ostentatious. One example of this would relate to the sacramental mystery of healing, also known as the anointing of the sick. In this service there are multiple biblical readings, hymns, and prayers. Specifically, there is a grouping of seven priestly prayers which upon first glance might appear to be redundant. In fact, many books compiled on the rite of the anointing of the sick (e.g., the Euchologion from the Byzantine Seminary Press) omit the majority of these prayers and instead focus on one prayer. In a brief survey of the different liturgical books in the Byzantine Catholic Seminary’s library, it appeared that only one book actually had all seven prayers, which is the text referred to throughout this essay. Is this common removal of the seven prayers in the other books a sort of boiling down of the “fluff” that has been done to provide us with the essentials of spirituality? Is the enumeration of prayers into seven merely a way to add on to the refrain of the many things which are grouped into sevens? That may appear to be the case upon first glance. After all, the Scriptural basis for this holy mystery seems very plainly described. In the letter of St. James we are told very plainly that for those who are sick they should be anointed with oil, prayed for by the elders of the Church, and that they will receive forgiveness of sins and healing if God wills (James 5:14-15). Thus, one could think that multiplying a service into seven distinct prayers is a Byzantine exaggeration of what is good and beneficial for the Church. However, as we will see, the seven prayers of the priests who celebrate the holy mystery of anointing together (as the rubrics prescribe a specific priest to take one prayer each) offer unique messages that are a beautiful image of a journey from darkness, brokenness and imperfection to light, healing and perfection.
In the seven priestly prayers of the anointing of the sick, there is a common strain asking for God’s blessing to descend upon the oil through the priest to bring about healing for the one that is receiving this holy mystery. Again, this common structure could make someone feel that what is being celebrated is redundant when one prays seven times. However, as we examine the prayers in more detail and compare them to each other, special imagery emerges in each prayer. Thus, the purpose underlying the seven priestly prayers is more than providing a numerological symbolism of completeness, though that may also be part of the substrate of the structure. Instead, the different prayers have different emphases which take us on a journey from darkness to light and from brokenness to a fundamental healing.
Beginning with the first priestly prayer, we are taken as (one might expect) to the beginning. Just as creation in Genesis begins in darkness and formlessness and in the first words of Scripture we hear God declare “Let there be light”, the first priestly prayer begins the journey with the one seeking healing and acknowledges their darkness. Because of this, the priestly prayer focuses upon the light that comes from Christ, which can overcome the darkness. The priest prays of how God is the one who gives light even to the fallen, and that our life itself comes out of darkness and death’s shadow. When we were in bondage, he cried out to us to come forth and from our darkness we are told to uncover our eyes. This light from Christ ultimately illumines our very hearts, showing that the anointing that we are to receive is fundamentally about spiritual healing and if God wills includes a physical healing. Again and again light is the predominant emphasis of this first prayer.
The first priestly prayer provides the tone that is so important for those who are suffering in sickness. In many ways, the theme which repeats the most in this prayer is that of darkness because we come to Christ for healing in a state of darkness. Confessing that we find our illness in a state of darkness and uncertainty is important. For so often, we come to God with a fear of admitting how unsure we really are. By praying about our darkness and doubt, we strip our souls bare so that our cries to God are without pretense, admitting that this darkness and doubt can be so real to our hearts. Our cries ask God to restore us to our lost estate from our first parents, Adam and Eve. The prayer closes beseeching God not merely that darkness would be gone (for after all, darkness has no real existence), but that we would be radiant with the light of Christ. But how could this even be possible? This is where the second prayer becomes so important and so helpful in our journey towards healing.
In the second priestly prayer, the emphasis moves away from a focus on darkness to describe the journey of healing that one desires to take. It is a desire to cry out to God to have him restore our lost estate. By beginning with an exaltation of the majesty of God, and by contrasting that with an acknowledgement of our own falls, we continue to respond not with despair but with a confession that Christ has come to reconcile us. He became a created human being like one of us in order to be able to call sinners to repentance. This repentance is fundamentally about restoring that lost estate. The examples of his loving restoration are then shown by quoting from his parables and his actions which exemplified this, as can be seen in parables such as the lost sheep or lost coin, or in his acceptance of the sinful woman who anointed him, or through his promises that we should arise and sin no more and know that there is joy over one sinner who repents. Establishing this reality of a call to restoration and a never ending love, the priest then turns to those for whom he prays and states that this reality with such biblical precedent is open in that moment. The restoration that can be ours and which has such a strong foundation provided by this prayer is what we then seek. We seek God’s lost presence to be restored, and that that presence might be the source of our forgiveness. In many ways the vast majority of this second prayer (apart from the introduction) is really focused on terms such as healing, because we need to be reminded that this holy mystery will happen on a spiritual plane of healing even if our physical ailments are not taken away. Like the first prayer’s orienting us to see that this sacramental mystery can bring us light from our darkness, our union that was lost can be restored here, and that may be even more important than whether we are eventually healed in this life, or not.
The third priestly prayer continues to expand the horizons of what healing and salvation in Christ means. In many ways, we can hear in the first two prayers that our darkness and our separation can be healed, but the immensity of this task may feel overwhelming particularly when our need is great. And so there is a strong sense in which the third prayer of healing has an emphasis upon the priest calling upon God in heaven to come down and be the one who saves us. Just as the Eucharistic prayer may lack a depth if it did not call down upon the Holy Spirit to transform the gifts into the body and blood of Christ, the third prayer is an epiklesis of sorts whereby we cry out to the only one really able to bring about what we are seeking in this holy mystery. For example, in the third prayer we confess that it is God who brings the healing. His chastisement is not ultimately about mortification but is in line with his role as the divine physician. In confessing that he is the one who heals and cleanses, we are open to the reality that this difficult task is something that only he can accomplish. This is where our insistence on help from above becomes not only logical but something that we deeply desire. The priest prays for the action of God to be sent from heaven, that he would touch, check, and soothe us. Conversely, the prayer asks God Himself to banish the illnesses that hurt us. The priest asks God to be the physician, to raise us and to restore us. This sequence of verbs demonstrates to our hearts that all needed actions will come to us from God who is on high but yet condescends down to us. As such, when the layout of transformation from darkness to light and from separation to union becomes daunting after the first two prayers, the third prayer flows seamlessly to remind us that the God who is all powerful is the one underlying and bringing about the process of healing that may seem too far beyond our reach.
In the fourth prayer, Christ becomes even closer to our hearts and minds. Not only is he the power who brings us salvation and healing as we heard in the third prayer, he himself is shown to be present in the priest who prays as the mystery of anointing develops further in this new prayer. Furthermore, the presence of healing in oil is something which stands out in this portion of the prayers in this service. As the prayer opens, the joining of the priest who prays to Christ deepens. The priest acknowledges that what is happening in the service is something he has received from the Apostles, which is beautiful gift that has been passed down through the ages. But it is not mere succession that is argued to make this prayer efficacious. Instead, we ask that Christ would prescribe that the very oil present there for healing. We are linked by receiving this tradition from the Apostles, but that is insufficient. The first clause ends and points out that this oil is for both healing and importantly for the distress that comes from ailment. Again, because this prayer service does not guarantee physical healing, a very important component of spiritual healing is that we would come to treat our infirmities by helping us with the distress that comes with a diagnosis or a prognosis.
From this link to Christ to be the physician who prescribes this oil, we strengthen our dependence on Christ as the prayer continues where the phrase “only physician of souls and bodies” is used. This is arguably our truest profession of who Christ is, and where healing comes from, as all healing ultimately comes from Christ the physician. Thus the prayer spreads to ask for sanctification for everyone, healing and raising up from the bed for those who are afflicted, and then transitions to ask for them to be visited with the loving kindness of God which will lead all present to offer thanksgiving for His visitation of His suffering servants. This thanksgiving transitions to a doxology because once we give thanks, we can give praise, and so we close with that praise because the presence of Christ brings worship for seeing Him come to meet us, particularly those of us who are in need. Thus, Christ’s presence is invoked in both the oil and in this action that the Church celebrates, which is not only true of this sacrament but of all of the holy mysteries of the Church.
As we think of Christ’s presence in the holy mysteries, we can always look around during the celebration of those mysteries and acknowledge that we are humans who make mistakes and fall short of the glory of God. As those praying or those being prayed for, we can look to our own inadequacies and feel disconnected from Christ who is the only physician. However, the fifth prayer flows naturally to keep us from despairing over any limitations that we may have. Like most of the preceding prayers, the introduction to the fifth priestly prayer in the mystery of anointing with holy oil begins with acclamations that affirm that Christ is the one who heals us through his mercy and loving kindness. In many ways these words are speaking to the same heart of healing but they speak here of how deep our Lord condescended to save us, in that he lifted us out of a trash heap and from the status of being beggars. As it continues, however, the account of Christ giving his apostles the ability to receive the Holy Spirit and to thereupon be the vehicle of bringing forgiveness to others, the fact that we call upon our priests to bring healing and forgiveness flows naturally, just as it does in the letter of St. James who tells us to call for the elders of the Church. And yet this prayer evolves further to turn our eyes in a new direction. It is here that the priest prays in the first person to speak of what he needs to be a faithful ministry of reconciliation, forgiveness and healing.
At this stage there are two paragraphs where the priest acknowledges all of his shortcomings and flaws, and as such prays that he would be lifted from his own depths of sin and transgressions, so that he may enter into the Holy of Holies as a faithful priest would do. He asks for himself further that he would be a faithful priest doing as would Christ, bringing healing, reconciliation and salvation to the world. Once that request has been made before the throne of grace, the priest turns to do as he was called to do, and he beseeches the merciful God and Savior to bring forgiveness and healing to the one for whom he prays. He asks for God to hear his prayer and to bring forgiveness and healing, whether voluntary or involuntary, whether deemed curable or incurable. By saying these words the fact that a particular healing may seem impossible to men is contextualized into a world of participation in the priesthood of Christ, and so things which seem overwhelming or insurmountable are actually not so, in Christ. Whether bound by voluntary or involuntary sin, the prayers here seek a universal liberation that comes via the priesthood of Christ in which the priest praying during the sacramental mystery is participating. In keeping with having a share in that priesthood, the words of the priest shift towards an emphasis of supplication that is rooted in the life of Christ. First, the priest points out that Christ Himself healed the mother-in-law of Peter in an act of mercy. Further, the priest says words of supplication which point out the frailty of human nature and the strength of the divine holiness that is so clear in the following words, such that the request which are made before God do not come across as demanding or plaintive. Instead, the humility and desire for mercy becomes the central focus of the prayers that close the fifth prayer of this sacramental mystery. We speak of our own frailties particularly in our youth and ask God who understand that this is the case to be merciful to us, and we praise him at the close for his great mercy. In closing, the fifth prayer continues the journey of beseeching God for his mercy and the boldness to seek healing comes from a union to the priesthood of Christ in which the priest shares, and the boldness to be healed comes from an understanding that we are people in need of great mercy that is being sought in the complexity of this divine service of the Church.
In the sixth priestly prayer of the holy sacramental mystery of forgiveness through the anointing of the sick, we are at a point in our life of prayer where the basis for healing is made very clear on all levels. We have the goodness of love of God who is the only true physician, and as priest and Church the connection to Christ as the only physician is made manifest through that connection. The desire to be healed on the part of the one being prayed for is also lined up as being based upon a humble request for healing and forgiveness. As all components of prayer appear to be complete, there is still the matter of really incorporating an open heart to respond to how it will be that God will respond to our prayer. After all, we may come to this sacramental mystery and have every possible request answered. Or it may seem to the ones praying at that moment that nothing was answered. Usually it is somewhere in between those extremes, but nevertheless the very deep understanding of how God is responding to our prayer is something which requires prayer and deeper understanding. In many ways the sixth prayer of healing brings this to us, as we expand our ostensible basis for coming to God for healing beyond our suffering and meditate upon how it is that this sacramental mystery is a success even when it is “only” a matter of receiving forgiveness and not healing of our infirmities. On a mystical level this is seen to be the most important level of healing, and this prayer takes great strides to teach us of this.
As the sixth prayer opens, the ministry of Christ as the only true Physician unfolds for us. We hear the priest pray thanking God that he is the one who heals, and that he does so by his own stripes which bring healing. As the good shepherd he is the one who sought out all of the broken-hearted, who healed the woman with the flow of blood, who healed the daughter of the possessed Canaanite woman of demon possession, who forgave the two debtors, who brought pardoned the woman found in sin, who healed the paralytic, who justified the publican, and who forgave the thief on the Cross and who Himself suffered and conquered the death on the Cross. The manifold forgiveness of healing and forgiveness becomes even more clearly stated as we remember this great chain of salvation that God wrought for us in Christ. Because of this, the priest’s prayers in this with prayer flow with a confidence and boldness that shines through in the prayers. And yet, if one were to read the petitions in this prayer, we would arguably know very little of the nature of the prayer as being linked to a bodily infirmity that we would be asking to have taken away. Instead, the healing and the infirmities appear to exist on the level of the soul first and foremost. To list these petitions in order, we hear of requests for pardon no matter how we have strayed and been alienated from God. No terminology around disease or suffering can be seen. In the next section, we hear of the priest asking that he would be heard as he implores God to overlook evil and failings, to spare from punishment, and asking instead that those for whom he prays as priest would be turned onto the right paths and to salvation ultimately. Again, there is no indication of a physical infirmity. In many ways these prays in the sixth prayer could be just as applicable in the context of a penance service for the holy mystery of penance.
As the sixth prayer continues, an emphasis on receiving forgiveness of sins is not lost. The next paragraph continues with an emphasis on the biblical promises of God providing salvation for his beloved people, as the priest invokes biblical passages such as Matthew 18 and John 20, which speak of how forgiveness can come to the whole world. Putting our blinders on to the rest of the service, the sixth prayer again can be argued to be pointing us to a ritual that is wholly focused on forgiveness, and as it ends with the doxology, words of how forgiving Christ is permeate the text of the prayer. Why does it not take us to the more immediate suffering of illness and death? I would argue that this prayer shows us here what is most fundamental to our life in Christ, and this sacramental mystery of anointing and healing. Our deepest healing is not to live forever without any pain or suffering. Instead, our deepest reconciliation is one of reconciliation to Christ despite our sins. The sixth prayer reminds us that as we journey to be anointed with oil, what is more fundamental is our life in Christ and our union with God. We may never be delivered from a physical infirmity, but that is no cause for worry or doubt because the forgiveness effected through this holy mystery is far greater than any miraculous raising of someone who is stricken through illness. As such, this beautiful raising of one who is in sin back into a life of forgiveness receives more focus because forgiveness is so much more fundamental to our salvation than healing. If we are also healed of physical weakness, we should praise God for that. But more importantly, if we receive forgiveness we have found our greatest basis for praising him.
In the seventh and last priestly prayer, we close our prayers with a sense of confidence that we will receive both forgiveness and healing. Again, true healing may be best received when it is spiritual and it may be that succumbing to a particular infirmity may be precisely the means by which makes one’s own life a Eucharistic breaking to enter into the new life in Christ. Nevertheless, the greatest reality is one of a relationship between people and their God, and this is what resonates throughout the seventh and final priestly prayer in the mystery of the anointing of the sick. The seventh priestly prayer of this holy mystery begins with a statement that has come to us throughout most of the prayers. But in its tone of conclusion, there is something very peaceful about hearing that God is the one who is the physician of souls and bodies, who desires the death of no sinner, and who is the one that brings the healing that is needed. To establish this, the seventh prayer takes us back to the life of healing that is older than the Incarnation. The priest points out that it is God who gave repentance to sinners in the Old Testament as can be seen with faithful Israelites like King David as well as Gentiles such as the Ninevites. This same repentance and healing is also seen in the New Testament with the words of this prayer as it speaks of the publican, the harlot, the thief on the Cross and even the chief apostles Paul and Peter who persecuted or denied Christ in their own ways. This is true despite the fact that Peter is the one to whom Christ gave a promise to build his Church.
This biblical precedent of the goodness and healing of our great God and Savior is then used to ask for the same mercy and forgiveness (note: not healing or deliverance from physical pain) becomes the focus of the prayer. No matter how far they have strayed from God and his commandments, we ask for reconciliation. Again, the weakness of mankind is pointed out to make it clear that the one who is in pain and suffering is not alone in his or her ontological/moral state. When we hear that God alone is without sin, we are taken to consider very similar prayers in the Panachida or funeral prayers where the priest says the same confession for the faithful departed. As we progress towards the final doxology, the priest professes that we were not created to be lost but to follow his commandments, and as such we give Christ glory, honor and worship now and ever and forever. It is only from there that the gospel book is then taken from the head of the one being prayed for. This strong context of healing as more fundamentally forgiveness is lost if we only ask for healing, and it is apparent that the traditional service for the anointing of the sick is more broadly based on healing as reconciliation as opposed to healing as being perpetually healthy from a physical plane.
In conclusion, the diversity of emphases and focus in the seven priestly prayers should dispel any notions that there is redundancy or unnecessary amplification of prayers. Instead, the journey to healing is one that needs to include a light to our own doubt, a clarification to any misunderstandings, and a building up of confidence that Christ Himself will heal us whether that is on a bodily plane or is more deeply tied to forgiveness and spiritual reconciliation. By praying all seven prayers our hearts are taken to understand this in such a beautiful way. For those churches that default to only praying a smaller formula, it may behoove them to consider their “ancestral traditions” as is recommended in the document Orientalium Ecclesiarum from Vatican II. Perhaps that reconsideration will provide the nuance, emphasis, and hope that as we are anointed by priests with holy oil, we will never despair again when we do not have this prayer for healing answered with physical healing. Instead, we will be taken to deeper realities of spiritual union which transcend physical healing, which is so important particularly when this is not what happens in our lives or the lives of our loved ones.
1. Kezios, Rev. Spencer T. Sacraments and Services: The Sacraments Narthex Press 1995
2. Orientalium Ecclesiarum, Vatican II 1964. Online source: http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decree_19641121_orientalium-ecclesiarum_en.html