'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.'
- James 5: 14-16a
Sickness and suffering are not part of God's will for humankind, and are a direct consequence of the Fall. Indeed, the salvation history of humankind throughout the Old Testament is punctuated with stories of people being healed by God as a response to their prayers and faith.
Much of the public ministry of the Saviour during his earthly life was similarly focused on restoring people to health and wholeness: the lame were made to walk, the blind were made to see, the mute were made to speak, lepers were cured, the demonically possessed were freed, the haemmorrhaging woman was made whole, among other examples of foretastes of the power of the Resurrection of the Saviour over sickness and death.
Since the Ascension of Christ, these healings have continued throughout the life of the Church. We see examples in the Acts of the Apostles, and in the lives of many of the saints. Our own St Melangell is known for healing miracles to have taken place at her intercession, and St Seraphim of Sarov is also well known for his similar gift.
In any discussion of healing, it is important for us to keep in mind that all fallen aspects of creation are simply the way of things in the world into which we have been born, and do not indicate direct, causal relationship between a person's sickness and any personal sin committed by that person. We must avoid any suggestion that a person's sickness is God's punishment for the person having done something bad or being cured as a reward for having done something good.
We see many people live holy lives and who are nonetheless afflicted by illness, and many people who seem not to treat others well and might have no faith but who nonetheless enjoy good health.
For those who are of the household of the New Covenant, Christ through his Church provides the Mystery of Holy Unction, or Anointing, in which the priests of the Church invoke the mercy of God on those who come seeking restoration, offering prayers and anointing them with blessed oil. This is reminiscent of the oil with which the traveller's wounds were anointed in the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
Our journey into wholeness must be viewed holistically: the healing of the body cannot be separated from healing of the soul, and constant growth into a life of penitence, fasting, prayer, participation in the sacraments, and a spirit of goodwill and charity towards others is all to be counted part of the process of restoration to wholeness. For this reason, Holy Unction ought ideally to be received in conjunction with Confession and Absolution, that the whole person may be restored to union with God.
Some points to bear in mind:
- The sacraments are not magic spells by which we can conjure up God and demand our desires to be fulfilled. If we wonder whether the Mystery of Holy Unction has "worked", we are thinking of it incorrectly. The sacraments are a means of encounter with the grace of God, which may manifest itself in our lives however and whenever God wishes according to his dispensation at the time, and which relies on our co-operation with God in order to have positive impact in our lives.
- The subject of healing touches on difficult questions of sickness and suffering in the world, which have been the subject of theological exploration for many centuries, and for many people pose challenges to their faith. It is important for all of us within the Church to remember this when our brothers and sisters approach the clergy asking for this sacrament, that we may handle their situations with sensitivity and love.