On the Service of the Holy Unction
Sermon preached by David Vermette on Wednesday, April 23, 2008
Mankind suffers from a grave illness. It is fatal in every case. Its name is mortality. The Scripture teaches us that the sin of Adam and Eve introduced death into the world, but it is not the sin of our first parents that we inherit but their mortality. No sooner are we born and grow up than we start to decay and we slide down the slope toward decomposition. St. Paul writes: "the sting of death is sin." (1 Corinthians 15:56) Sin is a symptom of the illness of mortality. To sin is to miss the mark, mistaking something that is apparently pleasant for something that is truly good; it is to mistake an appearance for reality. It is like a mirage in the desert of a human heart longing for the living water given by Christ.
If you're like me then when you reach out for something sinful the voice of conscience says, "No, you've seen this before; don't go down that path." But another voice says, "But I want it so much! It'll feel so good!" And so the soul is divided against itself. And if it continues to contradict itself by doing things it knows to be unhealthy it can even fall into a state of decomposition we call guilt and despair. The decomposition in the sinful soul is parallel to the decomposition of our bodies that occurs in the grave. And the stench is the same.
Sin is related to mortality, to our tendency to decay and to cease to be. But God is Being; His name is "I AM." He is "the existing One" as our Orthros service proclaims, the author of existence, of life, and of health. The Patristic witness is clear that God is not the cause of death or of evil. Death and evil exist as privation, a fancy word that means that they are a lack of something, the absence of something. Death is simply the absence of life. Evil is the absence of good as darkness is the absence of light. Light has measurable properties; its speed is about 186,000 miles per second. There is no such thing as the "speed of darkness." God said: "Let there be light." He never said: "Let there be darkness." Darkness is not a creature of God, in the proper sense; it is simply a word we use for the absence of light.
The fact that when we enter a room we can recognize whether it is dark or light within, causes us to be fooled into thinking that darkness is a created thing on an equal footing with light. And so it is with death and evil. Since we see that people die and we see plenty of evil in the world we conclude that God created and wills death and evil. A 10-year-old child gets caught in the crossfire of a gang war and is killed. Her parents wonder, "Why did God will the death of our child? Why did God send this evil upon us?" The death of that child is not necessarily the will of God, but it is certainly the will of a criminal. If everything that happens on Earth is God's will then why did the Lord teach us to pray: "Thy will be done on Earth"? If God's will is always done on Earth then why would we need to pray in this manner? Saint Paul taught us what God wills when he wrote: "God wills all human beings to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth." (1 Timothy 2:4) God wills salvation and life, not condemnation and death.
The death of a child in a gang war we blame on our favorite scapegoat - society. But our spiritual illness is responsible for our society, our so-called civilization. Adam and Eve in the Garden needed no civilization. Their art was the radiant beauty of God's creation; their literature was the words of God implanted in every created thing; their science was communion with the Creator of the natural order; their philosophy was the infinite and inexhaustible wisdom of God. Our illness is the source of our civilizations and that means that none of them can, nor will they ever be able, to find a complete cure for what ails us. For thousands of years we have had legal and political systems but crime and injustice multiply; we have philosophies and sciences but our ignorance remains; we have ethical and moral teaching but sin abounds. If society could have solved its problems unaided by God, don't you think it would've gotten around to it by now?
Let's not misunderstand: legal systems, science, medicine are necessary in a fallen world, but they are insufficient to the task of healing our spiritual wound. Only one thing is sufficient for that: the Incarnation of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ. When the Son of God, and God Himself, took a human body uniting His Divine nature to our Human nature, in a union without mixture, the healing began. And why is this? Because the union of the Divine and Human in a single Person restored the likeness of God obscured by death. By uniting the divine and the human natures, humanity is restored by divinity, the image of God is repaired, the likeness is revealed, and mortality becomes mortal.
The Gospels reveal that it was the nature of the body of the Incarnate Lord to heal. Do you remember the story about the woman with the flow of blood who is healed by touching the hem of Jesus's garment? And Jesus asks, "Who touched me?" because, says the Scripture, he felt the healing power go out of Him. It was always the intention of His Divine will to heal but the body of the Lord Jesus Christ was a source of healing even without the intention of His human will. The people of Jesus' day held that the woman with a flow of blood was ritually impure which means she was an outcast, someone who was imagined to be not only sick but also sinful. But she fought her way through a crowd and through her own alienation, with great trust and courage with the hope, not of commanding the attention of Our Lord, not of receiving a Word of salvation from Him, nor even a gesture from His blameless and immaculate hands, but just to touch the hem of His garment.
And just as that woman fought her way through a crowd to reach Jesus, the church in relatively recent times, places the service of Holy Unction amidst a crowd of services of Holy Week. The Church places this healing service smack dab in the middle of the holiest week of the holiest season of the year. Perhaps the Church is trying to remind us that healing is central to the mission of the Church - that the healing of body and soul is not a sideline along with other ministries of the Church, but is essential to it. And just as the power went out of the Lord's earthly body, when he was touched by the woman with the flow of blood, so on this night the very same healing power goes out of His mystical body the Church. And by that very same power, the Church heals the dying, the sick, the alienated, and every one of us.
So, tonight we are given a special course of therapy, by receiving the anointing of the Anointed One. Tonight, through the blessed oil we remove a piece of fallen creation and in redeeming it we receive redemption; tonight we declare with Saint Basil the Great that the Author of life cannot be held by corruption; tonight we anticipate Pascha by trampling down death and all its consequences; tonight we receive the chrism of the Existing One knowing that death, sickness and sin have no existence of their own. Tonight through this oil, the created bearer of Uncreated Grace, we touch the hem of His garment.
May God accept an unworthy prayer of one who desperately needs to be healed of his wounds, that through the prayers of St. James and of all the saints, all of us may be healed through the mediation of this Holy Unction by the Power of the Incarnate God. Amen.
Copyright © David Vermette 2008. All Rights Reserved.