Is It True that the Anointing of the Sick is Performed Shortly before a Person Dies?

No, it is not. The idea of the unction (the sevenfold anointing with consecrated oil) being performed over a seriously ill person on the eve of his possible death, has been formed over time.  However, it does not correspond to the original meaning and the evangelical origin of the sacrament, established by the Lord Jesus Christ Himself and originally performed on sick people for their healing. According to the Gospel of Mark, the apostles sent by Christ to preach the gospel “went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.” (Mk 6:12-13). St James the Apostle gives specific instructions on what to do in case of illness, “Is any sick among you? Let him send for the presbyters of the Church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer offered in faith will save the sick person and the Lord will raise him from his bed; and he will be forgiven any sins he has committed” (James 5:14—15). The term unction is derived from the Latin unctio, meaning “to anoint”.

The rite of the sacrament of unction has developed gradually since the early centuries, when it represented a blessing of oil with special prayer readings for its subsequent use to anoint the sick. At first, people invited priests to their homes to perform the sacrament. After the 6th century, the service became more complicated and began to be performed in churches. It was supplemented with more prayers, as well as readings from the apostolic letters and the Gospel. Finally, by the 15th century, the liturgical rite of unction took its present form.

The view of the unction being associated with the approaching death appears to be of Western origin. The Catholic Church referred to the anointing of the sick as Extrema Unctio, (the last anointing) until the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), because it occupied the last place in the list of other anointings (baptism, ordination, etc). It is also true that starting from the Middle Ages, the Western Church performed the unction mainly over the dying. The conclusive transformation of the unction into a sacrament for the dying took place in the Catholic Church by the XIII century, as evidenced by the name sacramentum exeuntium (the sacrament of the dying), spread at that time. In the 17th-18th centuries, the name “last anointing” in relation to the unction penetrated from the Western tradition into the Russian Church. Apparently, a corresponding distorted idea of the sacrament was formed at that time. In the 19th century, at the insistence of St Philaret (Drozdov), this name was taken out of official church use as inconsistent with the spirit of the sacrament. However, the popular idea of unction as a “ritual for the dying” has been preserved among the people.

Today, in the Russian Orthodox Church, there is a tradition to celebrate unction during Great Lent over all who wish to participate. This practice is related to the repentant nature of the sacrament, performed with faith in the forgiveness of sins, including those that a person does not notice or has simply forgotten about. The condition for forgiveness is our sincere repentance. The sacrament of unction is also a prayer for the healing from illnesses. When anointing the body of a sick person with oil, a priest invokes the grace of God, which heals spiritual and bodily infirmities. Healings do happen, and there are many testimonies, but we should remember that the unction is not a medical procedure that automatically gives a 100% guarantee of recovery. Healing in the sacrament of unction is not the guaranteed result of some outward actions. It is a gift of God in response to a person’s sincere appeal to him.

Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds

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