Jesus graciously provides healing for his people . . .
Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.
The sacrament of healing is offered both to people who are physically healthy, and to people who are sick, because all people are diseased in one way or another.
Connections linking Sickness, Death, & Sin
Suffering, sickness, and death are not normal. Rather, they are direct consequences of the ancestral sin. When the first Adam rebelled against God, it was a rebellion against Life, because God is Life. This rebellion against Life brought suffering, sickness, and death upon Adam, Eve, and all their progeny. Like an infection, Death spread to all mankind. And through humanity, Death spread to the entire world.
Therefore, all sickness and death has a common root. Cancers, colds, and car accidents are not isolated events, utterly unrelated to one another. Rather, all suffering, all sickness, and all dying are mere symptoms of a greater underlying problem: man’s alienation from his Creator. The root cause of every ache, boil, cancer, depression, epidemic, fever, gout, hernia, infection, jaundice, keloid, leprosy, miscarriage, neoplasm, osteoporosis, psychosis, quarantine, rash, sore, tumor, urinary infection, virus, wart, xiphoid syndrome, yellow fever, zit, and funeral can be traced to Adam’s forbidden meal in the third chapter of Genesis. So in a very real sense, all sickness and death is a result of food poisoning. (It is thus very fitting that our “medicine of immortality” is likewise food . . . the Eucharist.)
While all sickness and death results from sin, we cannot conclude that every illness a person suffers is due to his own sin, nor that every person dies because of his own sin. A heroin addict can give birth to a very sick baby, even though that baby did nothing to deserve being sick. A drunk driver can kill a child, even if that child did not deserve death. In John 9, Jesus plainly told a blind man that his blindness was not due to his own sin, nor to his parents’ sin. And the millions of victims of abortion have done nothing to deserve their fate. It can be very misleading, and therefore very dangerous, to assume that a fellow human being has only himself to blame for the suffering which he endures. This sort of critical spirit is incompatible with the compassion which is needed to facilitate the healing process. There is a direct connection between sin and disease, but the connection is rarely a simple one-to-one correlation.
Of course there are exceptions to this rule. There is a fairly direct connection between the promiscuous lifestyle and the acquisition of venereal disease. Gluttony is tied closely to obesity. Heavy smoking has a close connection to lung cancer. And the abuse of alcohol frequently leads to cirrhosis of the liver. However, even cases like these are not necessarily as simple as they may seem. A person may be virtuous, and yet still acquire a venereal disease because of an unfaithful spouse. A person may be overweight due to a glandular defect, rather than due to overeating. Some people get lung cancer without ever smoking a cigarette. And even teetotalers can have liver problems. I even read about one unlucky man who went in for a dental appointment, and acquired AIDS from his dentist, during the operation. Regardless of the disease which is encountered, snap judgments are rarely helpful. The first prescription should always be compassion.
How the Church approaches Sickness and Death
The Church understands sickness and death holistically, approaching healing primarily at the root, not merely at the level of symptoms. While the modern medical field mostly focuses on the physical aspect of disease, the Church focuses on the entire person: body, soul, mind, and spirit. The Church realizes that this or that disease may be temporarily addressed by medical science, but that nothing truly lasting is accomplished until the actual root of the problem is cured. Therefore, the Church always views sickness and healing within the context of sin and redemption.
This focus is radically different from the approach taken by medical science. And for this reason, people can easily make the false assumption that medical doctors are the only ones interested in “real” healing, thinking that the Church merely uses sickness as an segue for talking about “unrelated” spiritual issues. For a person who is suffering from physical disease, it can be easy to misunderstand the Church’s intentions. In the mind of the Church, a focus on sin and redemption is the only way to address the root cause of disease and death. But in the mind of a person who does not understand the connection between sin and sickness, it can appear like the Church is changing the subject. For this reason, it is imperative that the connection between sin and death is not only understood by the Church, but is also clearly communicated to the sick person. The biblical texts on healing, and the words in Orthodox healing services, both help to communicate the close connection between sin and sickness, and between redemption and healing.
Of the numerous passages in Scripture which discuss healing, two prominent texts are Mark 6:12-13 and James 5:13-16. Both of these passages call for repentance, promise healing, involve the anointing of oil by Christ’s chosen ministers, and are applied broadly to a plurality of sick people. The message is clear: Sin and sickness are closely related problems, and therefore they share a common cure. And just as the problem plagues us all, so the cure is available to all. The ultimate cure for all sickness, all disease, and all death, is nothing less than the life of the risen Christ, mediated to the patient through His body, the Church. In reconciliation to the Church, we are reconciled to Christ.
In baptism, we become heirs of Christ’s victory over death. In chrismation, we receive the healing indwelling of the Holy Spirit. In the Eucharist, we receive the medicine of immortality. In penance, we are cleansed from sin as if in a second baptism, and are restored to communion with Christ and His Church. The sacrament of ordination includes specific reference to the healing which God brings to every infirmity. The sacrament of marriage creates an indissoluble tie which cannot be broken by sickness. And by the sacrament of healing, the sick person is reintegrated into the Church community, given the promise of a hopeful future, and is reminded that Christ has triumphed over death, hell, and the grave, thereby transforming all Christian suffering from defeat into victory.
The Main Themes in the Rites of Healing
The Orthodox Church has celebrated the sacrament of healing in many different ways over the centuries. It took far longer for this sacrament’s liturgical expression to be solidified, compared to the other sacraments. The only two constant elements are the two core prayers: the prayer of blessing over the oil, and the prayer of anointing. And even the text of these two prayers exists in several different archaic versions. This sacrament has been concelebrated by 7 priests in a magnificent cathedral, with thousands attending, and this sacrament has been celebrated by a single priest visiting a single sick Christian. Either way, the point is to restore the sick person to the community, either by bringing the sick person to Church, or by bringing the Church to the sick person.
The prayer of blessing over the oil explicitly addresses the connection between soul and body, between sin and sickness. In the prayer, the priest calls upon God to use this blessed oil to bring healing to both flesh and spirit. The prayer makes no division between these two aspects of healing, and does not suggest that the anointing oil would be efficacious for one, but not the other. There is not one substance used only for healing the body, and a separate substance used only for healing the soul. Rather, the single vial of anointing oil is deemed efficacious for both. It is understood that true healing strikes at the very root of the problem, and thereby touches the entire person, both body and soul.
The prayer of anointing likewise incorporates this holistic understanding of healing. Through this single rite of anointing with a single substance, God is beseeched to heal the infirmities of both “body and soul”. The Church on earth is represented in the person(s) of the priest(s) celebrating the sacrament, all the saints and angels are called upon for intercession, and the holy name of the Trinity is invoked. Through prayer and the anointing of oil, the sick person is embraced by Christ and His Church, sins are forgiven, sanctification is given, an ax is brought down upon the very root of all illness and infirmity, and the promise of final, total, ultimate healing is provided.
Healing is realized, regardless of whether the external symptom (the physical malady) is immediately eradicated or not. The important thing is that the underlying cause for sickness has been addressed. The outward, physical sickness may be healed immediately. Or, it may linger. If it lingers, then it does so as a dead plant which has already been severed from its roots. Its leaves may be green for a moment, but its doom has already been decided, and it will wilt, dry up, and blow away. No sickness can remain forever, once the root cause has been cured. In the sacrament of healing, we are reminded that Jesus has defeated death via the cross. Therefore sickness and death have lost their power, have lost their sting, and are able to exert no more than a fleeting hold on God’s people. In Christ, every illness and every death becomes a martyrdom, a testimony to the triumph of the cross. “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs, bestowing life!”
Healing is the Gospel.