General or Extreme Unction, or the rite of Anointing of the Sick, is one of the seven sacraments of the Orthodox Church. The purpose of Anointing of the Sick is to invoke God's healing grace on a person suffering from bodily and spiritual illnesses.
This sacrament was established by Christ Himself, as stated in the Gospel of Mark. When the apostles were spreading the Good News throughout the earth, on their way they encountered people suffering from diseases or possessed by evil spirits. They healed the sick with the name of God, by laying their hands and praying. Bishops and priests received from the apostles the gifts of God's grace - to forgive sins, baptize, teach faith, and, in addition, heal diseases. In order to do that, the sacrament of the Blessing of Oil was established - the sick get anointed with oil in the name of the Lord for the healing of soul and body.
Sometimes illness is the result of a sinful life. In this case healing may come after forgiveness of sins. The priesthood and the person getting anointed pray for this, and such miraculous healings often happen. However, one should not say that Unction is meant to always heal physical illness. We cannot be sure that this will happen - but we have to pray and hope that it will.
The Anointing of the Sick with oil is called Unction, because it is usually performed by an assembly of priests (according to order there should be seven, but in practice it can be performed by a smaller number of clergymen).
The Church teaches that forgiveness for forgotten sins is given during the sacrament. What are forgotten sins? These are sins that escaped our attention due to general distraction, the sins we did not confess and simply forgot. It may also be the wrongdoings or thoughts that we do not even consider sinful. Do not confuse it with the sins which we have deliberately concealed and were afraid or ashamed to confess.
People often wonder - can a baby receive anointing of the sick? The answer is no. Only Orthodox Christians over seven years of age can take part in the sacrament of Unction. Most often, the sacrament takes place in the church, but if a person is seriously ill, it can be performed at home or in a hospital ward.
It is possible and necessary to perform the sacrament of Unction for those people who suffer not only from physical illnesses, but also from mental ones (for example, if a person is grieving about departed relatives or is in great despondency).
The Sacrament of Unction is not a magical procedure; one should embark on it consciously and treat it as a spiritual event. It is important to understand that Unction does not cleanse us from all sins. Those who get anointed should also be active Orthodox Christians, not the ones who come to church only once a year.
The sacrament is performed by seven or less priests. Anointing of the sick without a priest is not possible, so is the anointing of the sick performed by a layperson.
Active Orthodox Christians usually partake in the sacrament once a year - during Nativity Fast or Great Lent.
The Anointing of the Sick is also carried out during other fasts and upon private requests - in the case of serious illnesses. The Church recommends participating in the sacrament of Unction after confessing and receiving Communion.
The Church says that if a person manages to receive even one anointing, it will be effective. However, the priests still recommend that you treat the sacrament as responsibly as possible and come to the service in advance, and if you are late, then participate next time.
Traditionally Orthodox Christians (even if they are healthy) participate in the sacrament once a year. If a person suddenly falls ill with a serious disease, they can proceed to the sacrament whenever they need.
Even among Orthodox Christians there is a preconceived notion of Unction as the “last anointing,” which means that they participate in it only when there is no hope of recovery. There is also an idea that the ceremony itself can lead to death. Of course, such judgments are fundamentally wrong. As mentioned above, the Anointing of the Sick is a sacrament that primarily brings healing of the soul, as a result of which healing from physical illness can also come.
The Sacrament of Unction is indeed often performed for dying people. It is necessary for the human soul, which can prepare for the transition to another world with the help of the sacrament. Unction is especially important for those who are no longer able to repent because of a serious illness.
Usually the priest performs three sacraments in a row - Confession, Communion and Unction.
The Great Lent starts on March 15 in the Belarusian Orthodox Church this year. The sisters of Saint Elisabeth Convent will embark on this journey to Easter by reading what the Church Fathers have said about the three pillars of Lent.