The question before us today is the nature of the relationship between sickness and sin in the Orthodox understanding. The Holy Bible is the first place we will turn in order to understand this relationship. The Orthodox Church also has a service, which is understood to be a sacrament, called Unction. This service includes many hymns, prayers, and scriptural references addressing this topic and therefore, in order to explain the relationship between sickness and sin, we will take a look at this service, which can be found in various places, but which is most accessible in Hapgood’s Service Book.
The first thing one realizes when approaching the topic is that the Orthodox Church is thoroughly anti-Manichean or dualist. The Manicheans preached a type of “matter is evil, spirit is good” theology that led them to forsake the body. Modern-day proponents of this theory are various New Age groups and the Christian Scientist Church, which denies suffering as a reality. The Orthodox, following Scripture, see the body and soul as intrinsically united and eternally inseparable (even though death provides a temporary rupture). Hence the Orthodox understanding sees bodily and spiritual health as intimately linked, and both are seen as being affected by sin.
The cause of the illness that prompts the faithful to approach this sacrament is assumed to be sin. Canticle III, 2nd Sedalen states: “…do thou, the same Master and Lord of all, grant healing unto thy sick servant. Show compassion, have mercy upon him (her) who hath grievously sinned.” Sin is an ontological reality that separates man from God. The paradigm of sin is of course the Fall of Adam. Adam’s sin in the Garden of Eden cut him off from communion with God and he was forced to leave his entire life as he knew it. Adam had to toil on the ground and ultimately die as a result of his sin, and his son Cain killed Adam’s other son Abel. St. Paul explicitly states in Romans 6:23 that “the wages of sin is death.” In Corinth, some of the members of the community were even dying because they were receiving communion without discerning the body of the Lord; their sin brought about a physical death. From these examples we see that both sickness of the soul and the body arise from sin. Sin is also seen as a paralysis. In the hymn of Tone 3, we pray, “raise thou up my soul, which is cruelly paralyzed by all manner of sin.” Paralysis in the biblical worldview was often thought to stem from the parents’ sin or from the sin of the paralytic, paralysis being a retributive punishment. Therefore, sin itself is a paralysis that can only be freed by a miracle: God’s grace; we humans certainly cannot free ourselves from sin.
Despite bodily and spiritual sickness arising from Adam’s sin, they should not be seen as simply a punishment from God. Because of this estrangement from God, God in his love became incarnate as the “second Adam” to restore man to himself. Sickness and suffering on the Cross were transformed into a way for man to be united to God. Baptism is the principal way for man to be united to Christ. However, man tends to fall into sin and sickness will result even post-baptism; hence, the rites of penance and Unction exist to restore and witness to the restoration of the believer to the community. Sin separates man’s heart from others, and the sickness that results and which can progress until it visibly creates a separation between humans is really just a physical manifestation of an already-existing condition. The sacrament of Unction is a way for the followers of Christ to visibly participate in this work of reconciliation by professing their faith and asking for healing from Christ. St. James asks in the epistle read in this service:
Is any among you afflicted? 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 shall save the sick and the Lord shall raise him up, and if he have committed any sins, they shall be forgiven him (James 5:10-17).
Death itself is a mercy from God because it limits suffering and sin to a finite period, and gives man a motivation to cease his behavior and return to God. Jesus Christ overcame death itself then, and to those who die to sin he gives the resurrection and new life, which is best expressed on this earth by the forgiveness of sins.
Sin breaks a relationship with God, and it is the healing of this relationship—the health of the soul—that is the primary focus of the anointing service. However, the healing of the body is not excluded, and such a healing is assumed to be an interest as well. The first Troparion of Canticle I states: “O Master, who ever makest glad the souls, and likewise also the bodies of mortal men, with the oil of loving-kindness…” The priest’s prayer at the actual time of anointing states, “Heal thou, also, thy servant, N., from the ills of body and soul which do hinder him (her).” The anointing with oil is a sign and guarantee of the mercy of God. In fact, in the original Greek text of the sacrament of Unction, there is a play on words, given that oil in Greek is eleon, and the Greek word for mercy, eleos, in the accusative form, is eleon. Through the oil is given God’s mercy. When we as Christians approach this sacramental act with faith, God’s mercy and healing are given to us. A physical healing may be granted as well, depending on God’s pleasure. When Jesus healed the paralytic who was lowered through the roof in the Gospels, he first forgave his sins, and only then cured him of his physical ailment to demonstrate that he had the authority to do so. The forgiveness of sins was the primary focus, not the physical healing, which was only granted as a sign. When Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, Lazarus still had to die again, so we can infer from this that healings are for the purpose of teaching and manifesting God’s grace in a dramatic way. The passage with the paralytic is also instructive because he was healed by his friends’ action of lowering him down; he nowhere in the passage asks to be healed. This shows us that we as the community and Body of Christ have a strong responsibility for intercessory prayer to help one another be healed.
On a practical level, what should we as members of the Church expect the healing of the anointing service to effect? Again, the focus must be kept on a spiritual healing, while being open to physical healing. If the latter does not occur, we haven’t missed the mark. The service of Unction and the texts it quotes, especially the Epistle of James, speak of mercy, patience, endurance, and restoration. These are qualities that can be expected to be acquired by the sick person if he or she confesses his or her sins and is open to Christ prior to undergoing the sacrament—as sacraments are not magic and require our full participation and consent. Being sick separates the patient from the natural world, family, and friends, and often creates a quite negative environment. Hence, the sacrament of Unction brings God’s mercy, and should effect in us mercy towards those whom we know. A patient, especially terminal, must be careful not to let anger overcome him or her and especially must try to keep from lashing out at innocent people, especially nurses. Those around the ill person must show mercy in dealing with a quite difficult person and learn not to take such outbursts personally.
Patience is acquired in this process of showing and receiving mercy. Patience is especially required on the part of the patient who is a “go-getter” and who doesn’t like being served. A patient acceptance of being served can be given by receiving and accepting the message of the sacrament of Unction. Endurance is a virtue that also to be acquired. The strength given by God’s grace allows a person to suffer through the sickness and not curse God or fellow humans. The endurance is also needed to be able to tolerate the intense pain and alienation from self that accompanies a sickness; the patient has to learn to accept that he or she cannot move his arm, or walk, or talk, or function in the same normal way as before. Finally, restoration is to be accompanied through the anointing. Restoration is the quality of being reintegrated into the community; it’s also the quality of having sickness and death be realized for what they are, and accepting that these ailments do not cut us off from God but instead are bringing us closer to him by virtue of our accepting the Cross. The sick person is accepted as part of the Church here on earth, and if he or she does not recover, is prayed for as a member of the Church beyond this world.
Hence it is apparent that sickness and sin are related, and that sin can cause spiritual and physical ailments. The sacrament of Unction, a physical act, can be a means to restore spiritual health to the sick person, and even physical health, provided the person has disposed himself or herself to God’s mercy.