The human person was created with an incorruptible and immortal body. After the Fall it lost these qualities and became corruptible and mortal. According to St. Gregory the Theologian, the human person ‘put on the garment of sin, which is our coarse flesh, and became a body-bearer’. Illness and disease became a part of human life. The root of all infirmity, according to the Church’s teaching, is human sinfulness: sin entered the human person in such a way that it polluted not only his soul and intellect, but also his body. If death is a consequence of sin (cf. James 1:15), an illness may be seen as a situation between sin and death: it follows sin and precedes death. It is not, of course, that every particular sin results in a particular illness. The real issue concerns the root of all illness, namely, human corruptibility. As St. Symeon the New Theologian remarks, ‘doctors cure human bodies... but they can never cure the basic illness of human nature, its corruptibility. For this reason, when they try different means to cure one particular illness, the body then falls prey to another disease’. Human nature, according to St. Symeon, needs a physician who can heal it from its corruptibility, and this physician is Jesus Christ Himself.
During His earthly life Christ healed many people. Before healing someone, He often asked him about his faith: ‘Do you believe that I am able to do this?’ (Matt 9:28) As well as healing the body, Christ also healed the human soul from its most severe disease, unbelief. He also pointed to the Devil as the origin of all illness: of the bent woman He said that she was ‘bound by Satan’ (see Luke 13:16).
The Church has always considered its own mission as the continuation in all aspects of Jesus Christ’s ministry, including healing. Thus, from apostolic times, a sacramental action existed which would later receive the name of Anointing with oil. It is found in the New Testament: ‘Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders (literally, presbyters) 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 man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven’ (James 4:15-16). It is clear that the question here is not of a normal anointing with oil, which in ancient time was used for medical purposes, but of a special sacramental action. Healing qualities are ascribed here not to the oil, but to the ‘prayer of faith’; and physician is not a presbyter, but ‘the Lord’.
In the modern-day practice of the Orthodox Church, the sacrament of Anointing has preserved all the original elements described by St. James: it is conducted by seven priests (in practice, often, by three or two), prayers and New Testament passages are read, and the sick person is anointed seven times with blessed oil. The prayer of absolution is read by one of the presbyters at the end of the sacrament. The Church believes that, in accordance with St. James’s words, the sins of the one who receives Anointing are forgiven. This, however, in no way implies that Anointing can be regarded as a substitute for confession. Unfounded also is the opinion of some Orthodox believers that in Holy Unction all forgotten sins, that is, those not mentioned at Confession, are forgiven. The sacrament of Confession, as we said above, results in the forgiveness of all sins. The intention behind the sacrament of Anointing with oil Unction is not to supplement Confession, but rather to give new strength to the sick with prayers for the healing of body and soul.
Even more misleading is the interpretation of Anointing as the ‘last anointing’ before death. This was the understanding of the sacrament in the Roman Catholic Church before Vatican II, and it still finds its place among Orthodox believers. This is a misinterpretation simply because Anointing does not guarantee that a person who received it will necessarily be healed. Rather, one can say that Holy Unction makes the one who receives it participate in Christ’s sufferings, renders his bodily illness salvific and healing, liberating him from spiritual illness and death.
According to the Church’s teaching, God is able to transform everything evil into something good. In this particular case illness, which by itself is evil and a consequence of corruption, becomes for the human person a source of spiritual benefits. By means of it he participates in Christ’s sufferings and is risen with Christ to a new life. There are many cases when illness brings people to death, compels them to change their life and to embark upon the path of repentance that leads to God.