St. Mary Orthodox Church

Cambridge, MA

Service of Holy Unction

Sermon preached by David Vermette on Wednesday, March 31, 2010

In our Gospel reading for the bridegroom matins last night, I noticed that the Evangelist St. John the Theologian says that although Jesus had done so many signs before the people of that generation, they did not believe in him. In this connection the Evangelist quotes the Prophet Isaiah, “He has blinded their eyes, and hardened their heart; lest they should see with their eyes, lest they should understand with their hearts, and turn, and so that I should heal them.” St. John Chrysostom comments that this passage should not be taken to mean that God does not will all to be healed, or that he has reserved some for salvation and others for destruction arbitrarily, as some quite mistakenly have taught.

What it means, taught St John Chrysostom, is that God allows people to choose to be blind, to choose to have sclerosis of the spiritual heart, and to refuse the healing that God freely offers and freely gives. This means that God has given us a remarkable opportunity: to be fellow-workers with Christ in His work of healing mankind and all creation from the pain of death. God gave us the freedom to participate, through the Church, in the healing ministry of Christ. This is the opportunity with which we are presented tonight.

Through the Evangelist John, the Prophet Isaiah shows us the way to be healed: we must see with our eyes, we must understand with our hearts, and then we must turn toward God that He may heal us. First, then, we must see with the eyes of the soul. The eyes of the soul must open to see the world both within us and outside of us. Holy Fathers wrote in great detail about this opening of the eyes of the soul, about how it begins to occur through our efforts to keep the commandments of Christ, through the liturgical life, through unceasing prayer, and through that disposition of attentiveness that they called watchfulness. They taught that by these means we must open our eyes and awake from mental sleep. When the eye of the soul opens we then come to understand with our hearts: we perceive the world and ourselves as God perceives them; we are illumined by the gifts of discernment, of self-knowledge, and of spiritual knowledge. Having seen and understood we then have turned; we’ve turned to God with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind and all our strength.

Like the blossoms this time of the year that begin to bud and then to burst forth with color and fragrance, turning toward the radiant sun, the soul turns to God and opens to the light and warmth of Christ the Sun of Righteousness. Through seeing, understanding and turning toward God every infirmity of the soul is healed and even the memory of former passions and sins dissolves like shadows in the brightness of that Sun, in the sapphire blue sky that shines with the radiance of the First Day when the Creator commanded: “Let there be Light.”

But it is also possible to see but not understand. We can understand and not turn toward God completely. And if this happens then the healing light of Christ does not shine in us. And then we lose what little we had; our understanding departs and we tell ourselves that we must have been mistaken. We close our eyes again and return to our mental sleep. Then the voice of God Himself could speak from the clouds and we will say it was just thunder. In such cases God does not disturb our slumber unless through the prayers of the Church, of the saints, of the spiritually awake in our midst, an alarm bell goes off and with a start we open our eyes again. Sometimes these alarm clocks come in the form of bodily illness, either our own or that of someone dear to us, or a serious accident or a sudden death in the family arouses us and opens our eyes, to understand and to turn again.

An alarm clock rang for me some years ago when I worked at a start-up consulting firm in Harvard Sq. with its comfortable offices and its lucrative contracts. There was a homeless woman who was one of the regulars in the neighborhood and I used to give her money for which she was genuinely grateful. And when I gave her something, sometimes emptying my wallet of whatever was there, she never failed to call me “honey.” One Friday night I noticed that her face was beet red, an unnatural color I’ve never seen in a person’s face before. I knew in that moment that she was dying. I didn’t know what to do. I called some trusted friends and family and said, “I know this homeless woman is dying and I can’t just let her die on the street, what should I do?” Some said, call a shelter, some gave other advice, but I did what I usually do, which is to think about doing something. I thought about it, worried about her, and felt powerless, all of which is my usual M.O. In short I did nothing.

The next Monday morning I approached the door of my office building only to see two policemen on the stoop. They were leaning over a body bag on the stoop. I didn’t need to look to see whose corpse was in the bag. I literally had to step over that homeless woman’s dead body to go to work, and as I did I avoided looking one more time at that woman’s face, no longer blood red, but white with the pallor of death, as the policeman zipped up that bag to cart the remains of that woman off to God only knows where. And we live in a society that justifies with impeccable logic that it is natural law that some people live in mansions living and dying in relative comfort, while others live under a bridge and die alone on the stoop of an office building. We who call ourselves Christians even defend such logic and we, myself included, walk by such people every day and do nothing. And we think the homeless people are the crazy ones.

Maybe nothing could have been done to save that woman, but she didn’t need to die on the stoop of an office building. I saw with my eyes, I felt compassion, but I didn’t understand with my heart and I didn’t turn with all my might to God and there was no healing. Such incidents are alarm clocks that ring in our lives and remind us that it is time to wake up. And tonight, if we freely accept it, the Church offers another alarm clock in a week full of chiming, ringing, buzzing alarms.

Tonight we have another chance to awake from sleep, and maybe this time we won’t hit the snooze button right away. Tonight we are offered the Holy Oil, the spiritual medicine that softens the hardened hearts of men and women. Tonight this oil reminds us of the gift of God’s freedom, a gift of Himself, the gift of the freedom that belongs only to Him and to us. Tonight, through this oil, we have another opportunity to allow the buds to blossom and to turn toward the Light of Christ.

Tonight through this oil the Son of righteousness shines in our hearts that it might shine in turn on all of the people whom we encounter who have need of healing, all of the people who otherwise might suffer or die alone. Tonight, may all of us when we receive this Holy Unction, see with our eyes, understand with our hearts, and turn that God the Holy Trinity may heal us through the prayers of St. James the Brother of the Lord and of St. Mary His most-pure mother. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.