U is for Unction:
Unction is the name given to the act of anointing with holy oil; Holy oil has been used in Church since the beginning and is part of the heritage which we have inherited from Judaism. In the Old Testament, priests and kings were anointed to show that they were set apart for a special role. From this, the Jewish people then began to call the future deliverer of Israel ‚Äúthe anointed One‚ÄĚ, in Hebrew, the Messiah. The Greek word for Messiah is Christ, and so you could say that it is from the practice of anointing with holy oil that we get our name of Christian.
In the Christian Church we also use holy oil to show that people are set apart, or putting it another way, beginning a new role. It can be used at baptisms, confirmations, ordinations, and coronations. So the Queen was anointed when she became our monarch; priests are anointed at their ordination; and everyone is anointed when they become a member of the body of Christ at their baptism. The holy oil symbolised that each of us was entering into a new state or way of life.
We also use holy oil when we are praying for healing. In the Letter of Saint James it says, ‚ÄúAre any of you sick? They should call the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.
For the first few centuries of the Church‚Äôs history, there wasan expectation that the person prayed for and anointed would recover. However, this changed during the early medieval period. The practice of anointing came to be strongly associated with repentance and forgiveness, and became an act that wasonly done near death. It became known as ‚Äėextreme unction‚Äô either because it was performed at the extreme of a person‚Äôs life (just before the end) or because it occurred when a person was in an extremely bad way, i.e. approaching death.
During the last few decades, there has been a restoration of the earlier understanding of anointing as part of our prayer for healing. It is still associated with repentance and forgiveness but it isnow an act through whichChrist ministers to the members of his Church throughout their lives, not just at the end. So at our healing service, as well as the laying on of hands and silent prayer, we anoint the forehead with oil.
The sign of the cross is made with the oil and this repeats what is done at baptism. Through our baptism we are included into the life, death and resurrection of Christ. By making the sign of the cross with holy oil we are performing an enacted prayer (a prayer of action as well as words) to call upon the healing power of the cross and resurrection we received at baptism. When we pray for healing at Church we are doing more than just praying that a specific illness or problem will be solved. Certainly we pray for physical well-being, but that prayer is included in amore general petition for health and wholeness. But what does this mean?
A healthy and wholesome organism is one that can grow, be it a plant or an animal. It has freedom to develop. That growth can only happen if the organism is also in harmony, or at peace, with itself and its surroundings. And if both these two aspects happen, freedom for growth and harmony, the organism can then fulfil its function and purpose in creation, So when we pray for health we are praying that a person may be free from those things which limit life, in order that they may to grow and develop. For human beings, this growth may not always be physical, that only happens when we are young, but whatever our age we can all grow psychologically and spiritually. We are praying alsothat a person may have good relationships, with themselves (how many people seem to hate themselves), other people and with our environment. And finally, we pray that they may know and pursue their purpose in life, which for the Christian must be to know and love God more and more each day of our lives. In Christian healing, wholeness is not only about being wholesome, or even being whole (or complete), but it is also about being holy. At the root of all Christian prayer for healing, is the prayer of Christ himself, offering himself on the Cross in order that we might come to know and love the Father, and one day be united with him.
Extreme Unction by Rogier van der Weyden (1399/1400‚Äď1464)