Holy Unction And The Passion Play
By Father Andrew Harrison
Many of the modern practices of our Orthodox Church are rooted practices,
which are very old. However, our attitude towards them has sometimes changed over the
years. We have come to believe, for example, that the Holy Unction service on Holy
Wednesday is for general healing of our physical illnesses, although the spiritual side is
mentioned. As such, we have totally reversed the ancient practice.
The prime purpose of Holy Unction was originally for the spiritual
healing of persons who committed grave sins and were excommunicated from the church.
After a prescribed period of penance, these people were then brought back into the
congregation on Holy Wednesday and allowed to receive Holy Communion.
The Holy Wednesday Unction service is a popular service, and the church
is packed with people who wish to receive physical and spiritual healing. However, this
has questionable value unless they have been excommunicated.
Sacraments are not magical acts. They require faith. Jesus never said,
"I heal you." He said, "Your faith has healed you." (Matt. 9:22). He never had mass
healings. His healing was directed to an individual or small group, as in the ten blind
men. It is for this reason that in the normal sacrament of Unction the person who is sick
is anointed while the congregation prays for him.
What should we do with this popular service? Should we abandon it and
return it to its original purpose, or can we find meaning and purpose in it in our modern
church life? I think we can.
Instead of mass physical healing we can reestablish Holy Unction's
penitential character. We can perceive it not so much as a healing of disease but as a
forgiveness of sins and our return to faithfulness. We need faithfulness to endure the
trials and tribulations of life. We either face them with the strength given to us by God
through faith, or we can fall into despair, which leads into depression and estrangement.
When Christ was betrayed by Judas, taken into custody by the Roman
soldiers, tried, beaten and condemned to death, the apostles lost their faith and went
into hiding. There is a correlation with the action of the apostles in our modern practice
of attending only the Holy Unction service. We come to Holy Unction for healing then hide
out until the resurrection celebration of Pascha.
Recently our church school children went to see an excellent passion
play performed in the Nazarene church in Lemont. It was very meaningful. It had all the
special effects that we see on TV or in the movies. In a traditional passion play the
performers dramatize the events on a stage while the audience sits and observes. When the
play ends, the audience leaves usually with a variety of good feelings.
We Orthodox also have a passion play. However, the Orthodox Passion
lay (Holy Thursday evening reading of the Twelve Gospels) is a much different experience.
We are not in the audience; we stand on the stage. We read along with the priest. We kneel,
bow, and make prostrations. We see the room darken as each of the twelve candles is
extinguished one by one after each Gospel reading. We weep as the priest carries the cross
and places it in the center of the Church. The words: "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani"? ("My
God, My God, why have You forsaken me"?-Matt. 27:46) pierce our hearts as Christ gives up
We are standing by the cross at Calvary with the women who remained
faithful. After venerating the figure of Christ on the cross, which is covered with a
wreath of red flowers, and feeling the sharp thorns of the roses we receive, we do not
leave with good feelings. Our feelings are of sorrow that Christ had to do this for us so
that we could be forgiven of our sins.
I am sorry to say that church attendance on Holy Thursday is always
sparse. This is a sign that we have the same lack of faith that the Holy Apostles had.
They did not stand by Christ because they were afraid and in despair. Our reasons may
be include lack of knowledge, complacency, or just being "too busy."
If you have never attended an Orthodox Holy Thursday Passion Play, I
invite you and your family to be at St. Luke Church on Thursday evening, May 2nd, at
7:00 PM. If you can only attend one service, either Holy Wednesday or Holy Thursday, I
recommend that this year you select Holy Thursday. In this way you will be truly one of
Christ's faithful followers and in no need of Holy Unction.