April 16, 2014

Holy Unction and Holy Wednesday

"Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the presbyters of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well and the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven." (James 5:14-15)

In the evening of Holy Wednesday there is celebrated in our churches the Mystery of Great Unction (or Anointing). During the celebration there are seven readings from the Gospels, seven from the Epistles and seven Prayers, and ideally seven Priests (if possible). In this way the oil of Great Unction is blessed, and the Priest in turn blesses the faithful by anointing them with oil crosswise on the forehead, the chin, the cheeks, the palms and the hands.

This ceremony is not only done on Holy Wednesday, but it can be done any time of the year, and the faithful can even ask their parish priest to have the Mystery of Unction performed in their homes.

The reason we celebrate the Mystery of Great Unction on Holy Wednesday is because the Orthodox Church sets aside this day as a day of final preparation before we witness the Passion of Christ. Just as Christ was anointed with precious and expensive myrrh by the repentant harlot woman in preparation for His burial, so are we also anointed with sanctified oil towards our healing and the forgiveness of sins. This is because no one can approach the Passion of the Lord properly without being healed of their own sinful passions. The sanctified oil of anointing is therapeutic for the soul and the body, and not only is to be accompanied with Confession for any mortal sins committed, but it helps prepare us to receive the Immaculate Body and Precious Blood of the Lord the next morning on Holy and Great Thursday.

Greek Traditions and Holy Unction

During the ceremony of the Mystery of Great Unction a candle is lit for each of the seven Gospel readings. Some of the faithful do this as well during the ceremony. At the same time, three candles remain lit throughout the ceremony in a bowl of flour (some place the seven candles here). It is customary to take this flour afterwards and use it to bake traditional paschal cookies, to be eaten when the fasting period is completed on Pascha, though it can also be used for the offering bread of the Eucharist.

In Pontus it was common for the Priest to celebrate the Mystery of Great Unction in the homes of the faithful. Not only was the household anointed, but also objects that were used as sacred items and set apart for sacred work.

In Kotyora (Ordou), the Priest on Holy Wednesday would visit the homes of the faithful, in which there were raw eggs, flour and salt. The Priest would anoint these and on Holy Thursday they would dye their eggs and bring all three items to church for Vespers in a basket covered with cloth.

In Sparta they would eat some of this flour every morning as unleavened bread. Then they would prepare the new flour for the year on Holy Wednesday, since flour needs to be refreshed yearly.

In Athens, a woman from the church would go from house to house and knead the flour without yeast. The Priest would then lean a Cross on it in the church and the dough would rise. This was the unleavened bread for the year. The woman would then distribute this dough to the houses, and from this the paschal cookies would be made.