This sacrament – known in Greek as euchelaion, ‘the oil of prayer’ – is described by St. James: ‘Is any sick among you? Let him send for the presbyters of the Church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer offered in faith will save the sick person and the Lord will raise him from his bed; and he will be forgiven any sins he has committed’ (James v, 14-15). The sacrament, as this passage indicates, has a double purpose: not only bodily healing but the forgiveness of sins. The two things go together, for the human being is a unity of body and soul and there can therefore be no sharp and rigid distinction between bodily and spiritual ills. Orthodoxy does not of course believe that the Anointing is invariably followed by a recovery of health; the sacraments are not magic. Sometimes, indeed, the euchelaion does indeed assist the patient’s physical recovery, but in other cases it serves as a preparation for death. ‘This sacrament,’ remarks Sergius Bulgakov, ‘has two faces: one turns towards healing, the other towards the liberation from illness by death.’+
The sacrament of Anointing has never been regarded by the Orthodox Church as ‘Extreme Unction,’ intended only for the dying, but it is available for all who suffer from any physical or mental illness. In many Orthodox parishes and monasteries it is the custom to celebrate the euchelaion in church on Wednesday evening or Thursday morning during Holy Week, and everyone present is invited to approach for anointing, whether physically ill or not; for, even if we do not require healing of the body, we are all of us in need of healing for our soul. All too often in Orthodoxy the Anointing of the Sick has become a forgotten sacrament: we Orthodox need to make far greater use of it.