The Heritage of the Coptic Orthodox Church

Sacraments of the Church

Alexander A-Malek
October 15, 2005

An introduction to the Seven Sacraments of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Currently, the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is available.

The Anointing (Unction) of the Sick

“In My name… they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover” (Mk. 16:17,18).

Illness and suffering have always been among the gravest problems confronted in human life. In illness, man experiences his powerlessness, his limitations, and his finitude. Every illness may make us glimpse death. Illness may lead to anguish of heart, self-absorption, sometimes even despair and revolt against God. Cutting both ways, illness can also make a person more mature, helping him discern or ‘weed out’ what is not essential, so that he can turn towards that which is essential. In this sense, illness often provokes a search for God and a return to Him. When one is ill and in pain, this can very often be a time of repentance and re-union with God.  Such is the case when one feels alone and isolated. Other sicknesses, however, may be the outcome of sin. In the book of Exodus, the Lord God promised the Israelites, that if they would follow His commandments and keep His ways, He would not bring down on them the diseases He brought down on the Egyptians (Ex. 16:26). Also, St. Paul told the Corinthians that since some people have sinned and communed of the Body and Blood of the Lord in an unworthy way, “many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep” (1 Cor. 11: 29, 30).

What, then, is the solution to illness and disease?  Out of compassion to all who believe in His holy Name, the Lord Jesus Christ instituted the “Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick,” which is also called “Holy Unction.” The Sacrament was instituted when the Lord said to His disciples: “Heal the sick, cleanse the leper” (Matthew 10:8); “Whatever city you enter, and they receive you, heal the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The Kingdom of God has come near to you’” (Luke 10: 8-9); and “In My name… they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover” (Mk. 16:17,18).

Since the Lord Jesus came that we may have life, and that we have it more abundantly (John 10:10), He healed the sick, raised the dead, opened the eyes of the blind, purified the lepers and the lame, after having saved them and forgiven them one of the main causes of sickness, which is sin.  “Jesus went about doing good and healing all those who were oppressed by the devil” (Acts 1:38), and this is as Malachi prophesied about Him saying, “But to you who fear My Name, the Son of Righteousness shall rise with healing in His wings” (Malachi 4:2).  Our fathers the Apostles practiced this sacrament according to the orders of their Master, “So they went out and preached that people should repent.  And they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them” (Mark 6:12, 13). Thus, we find that the sacrament has been handed down as an Apostolic tradition.

“Heal the Sick!” (Mt. 10:8). The Church has received this charge from the Lord through the Apostles, and strives to carry it out by taking care of the sick as well as by accompanying them with her prayer of intercession. This is also in accordance to what St. James wrote: “Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven” (James 5:14, 15). The Orthodox Church believes in the life-giving presence of Christ, the physician of souls and bodies, and this presence is particularly active through the Seven Sacraments of the Church. The Holy Unction, being one of the Seven Sacraments of the Church, is given freely (Acts 8:20) to all those who humble themselves before the Lord. As H.H. Pope Shenouda III wrote, “The anointing of the sick is an act of love, and is a prayer on behalf of the sick…if only we would remember what our Lord said to His disciples: ‘Freely you have received, freely give’ (Matt. 10:8).”(i)

In the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Holy Unction may be administered to any baptized person – young or old, sick or healthy – and it can be repeated in cases of need. Both the person being anointed and the priest should be fasting.  Through this sacrament and the offering of repentance we gain the forgiveness of our sins. Therefore, it is important that the priest is vigilant in accepting the confession of the sick prior to the prayer, so that their sins may be forgiven. For these reasons, the priest shall wear his liturgical vestments during both the Sacraments of Confession and the Holy Unction. The prayers preceding this Sacrament are rich with an assortment of Bible readings and supplications. The order of the prayers of the Holy Unction is very old and traditional. Church history mentions that St. Epiphanius, Bishop of Cyprus, wrote and organized these prayers. In addition, St Basil confirms that the prayers were well known in the Church from the early days.(ii)

The Holy Unction is commonly referred to as the sacrament of the “Kindeel”(literally: lamp) because the early Christians used to place the oil in a lantern with seven wicks. The rite included seven prayers by seven priests, and so each lamp was lit at the beginning of every prayer. Today, the oil is poured in a plate and seven threads are dipped into the oil to form the shape of the Cross. The priest(s) later lights these wicks during the service.  The number seven signifies the fullness of time and fullness of the Holy Spirit’s grace in the Church. The number seven also signifies the seven spirits of God (Rev. 3:1), and each spirit is one of the seven sacraments of the Church – hence, the seven lighted threads serves as a reminder that what is done is sacrament. The grace of the Holy Spirit sanctifies the oil in order to heal those anointed by it. This sacrament reminds us that when we are in any kind of pain – physically, emotionally, spiritually, and even mentally – Christ is eternally present with us through the ministry of His Church. For God, in His awesome power, does not make any distinction between diseases – to Him there is no difference between a simple cough and someone with mental illness.  In our suffering and strife, with one word God heals and restores all things.  By the sacred anointing of the sick and the prayer of the priests, the whole Church commends those who are ill to the suffering and glorified Lord, that He may raise them up and save them. Following the conclusion of the service, the priest extinguishes the lit threads (wicks) and anoints the sick as well as those who are present with the oil.(iii)

It is important to note that Orthodox Christians do not wait until the final moments of their lives before calling a priest; rather, we hope for the recovery of the afflicted one, accepting God’s will in all instances. We pray that God would use this sacrament as the means of healing for the sick person. This is contrary to the Roman Catholic sacrament, which since Peter Lombard was called the “extreme unction.” The Orthodox Church does not have a special unction for cases of utter crisis.  Thus, the Holy Unction is not limited to once per lifetime; it is a kind of medicine and should be used as such – whenever there is a need. By means of the Holy Unction we invoke divine grace for the healing of our bodily and spiritual infirmities. We also receive union with the Passion of Christ, and for that reason, there is a rite for the General Unction before Passion Week every year in the Coptic Orthodox Church, by which the Church attempts to direct all of our attention to the suffering of our Lord. In addition, we also receive union with the heavenly hosts and saints. The anointing equips us with the tools we need for the final journey to heaven – a kind of final intercession to God, in supplication to accept every soul.

Most certainly, any healing that may take place is from God, whether medication is used or not. It is a wondrous act performed only by the mighty hand of God.  For this, all glory and thanksgiving is due to His Name. The healing of an ailed person displays the awesome power and wonder of God to all who witness. As the Lord said about the sickness and death of Lazarus, “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (Jn. 11:4). Also about the man born blind, the Lord Jesus said, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him” (Jn. 9:3).

Nevertheless, the irreproachable faith of the individual plays a key part in the healing process. The sick person and his relatives must have strong faith in the work of God, just like the two blind men who had strong faith that Christ would heal them (Matthew 9:28), the faith of Jairus (Luke 8:50), the faith of the father who had an epileptic son (Mark 9:23), the faith of the friends of the paralytic man (Matthew 9:2), and the faith of the bleeding woman (Luke 8:48). The sick must have faith and confidence in the priest, just as he has trust in his doctor. Faith is the catalyst that sets us free from the bonds of suffering and illness. The faith of the pure appeals to God in an indescribable manner; for the faithful are His children and He, to them, a Father. As it is said by the Lord, “if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you” (Matt. 17:20).

Thus far, we have discussed the causes and benefits of illness; we have shown the role of God and His Church in the healing process; as well as our own personal responsibilities. Now we shift our focus to the statement opined by some, which suggests that the Sacrament replaces medicine; this is hardly the case. While the sacrament is certainly practiced, and healing may certainly come from it, this does not mean that it replaces medicine. After all, in the Coptic Church’s history, the monasteries were the first hospitals, and the monks were the first to care for the sick through what they knew of medicine, and yet at the same time they still prayed this sacrament. For instance, St. Pachomious, in his Koinonia II, 40, wrote: “If some sickness is alleged, the housemaster shall proceed to the ministers of the sick and receive from them whatever medicine is necessary.” The church does not discourage any believer from seeking proper medical attention in any field of medicine, but the believers must have the Lord in their hearts as their only true Healer. In fact, he who refuses medical treatment might be putting the Lord God to the test. In other words, medical alternatives are tools, and God is the One who wills whether the medicine ministered by man and brought about by human knowledge will affect the sick person. Therefore, medicine, which is created by man’s intelligence, only as a result of the gifts and knowledge given by God, is a vessel of healing, while in the sacrament, the grace of the Holy Spirit moves this vessel for true healing of both soul and body. A prominent theologian once stated: “Health obtained through medicine is one of these things that has its origin and existence as a consequence of Divine providence as well as human cooperation.”

At the same time, however, a patient who relies entirely on medicine, denies himself the ability of God to heal him, just like King Asa, of Judah: “Asa became diseased and his malady was very severe, yet in his disease he did not seek the Lord, but the physicians” (2 Chronicles 16:12-13), who was contrary to the good King Hezekiah who was close to death, and prayed to the Lord, weeping bitterly until the Lord sent Isaiah the prophet to him saying: “Thus says the Lord, the God of David your father, I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears, surely I will heal you.  On the third day you shall go up to the house of the Lord.  And I will add to your days fifteen years” (2 Kings 20:1-6). Also, we are constantly reminded in the Holy Bible that we are healed by God. The Lord stated, “I Am the Lord Who heals you” (Ex. 16:26). Also, David the Psalmist thanks God saying, “Bless the Lord, O my soul…. Who heals all your diseases, Who redeems your life from destruction” (Psalm 103: 1-4), and, “O Lord my God, I cried out to You and You have healed me” (Psalm 29:20), and also the prayer of Jeremiah the prophet: “Heal me O Lord, and I shall be healed” (Jeremiah 17:4). 

Finally, Christ’s compassion toward the sick and His many healings of every kind of infirmity are a glittering sign that “God has visited his people” and that the Kingdom of God is close at hand. His compassion toward all who suffer goes so far that He identifies Himself with them: “I was sick and you visited Me.” (Matt. 25:36).  His preferential love for the sick has not ceased through the centuries to draw the very special attention of us today, towards all those who suffer in body and soul. He personally invites all of us, through His Church, to everlasting rest. All we have to do is approach Him. The sick tried to touch Him, “for power came forth from Him and healed them all” (Lk. 6:19), and so in the Sacraments, Christ continues to touch us in order to heal us. Moved by so much suffering Christ not only allows Himself to be touched by the sick, but He makes their miseries His own: “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases” (Mt. 8:17). Despite this, Christ promises a more radical healing: the victory over sin and death through His Passover. On the cross Christ took upon Himself the whole weight of evil and took away the “sin of the world”-our sin-dept, of which illness is only a consequence. By His passion and death on the Cross, Christ has given a new meaning to suffering: it attaches us to Him and unites us with His redemptive Passion. Only with this uniting, will we hear those blessed words spoken to the man at the pool of Bethesda saying, “Son your sins are forgiven” (Mk. 2: 5).

“Jesus then means according to the Hebrew “Saviour,” but in the Greek tongue “The Healer;” since He is physician of souls and bodies, and leading minds into light, healing the visibly lame, and guiding sinners to the steps of repentance, saying to the palsied, “Sin no more, and, Take up thy bed and walk”. For since the body was palsied for the sin of the soul, He ministered first to the soul that He might extend the healing to the body. If therefore, any one is suffering in soul from sins, there is a Physician for him:  and if any one here is of little faith, let him say to Him, “Help thou mine unbelief.” If any is encompassed also with bodily ailments, let him not be faithless, but let him draw nigh; for to such diseases also Jesus ministers, and let him learn that Jesus is the Christ.”(iv)

Endnotes

(i) H.H. Pope Shenouda III, So Many Years With the Problems of People, Part III: Spiritual and General Problems, p. 89.

(ii) H.G. Bishop Mettaous, The Sacraments, (El-Sorian Monastery).

(iii) Cf. Mikhail, Deacon Albair Gamal, The Essentials in the Deacon’s Service, (Shobra, Egypt: Shikolani, 2002), p. 988, 989. Translated from Arabic by Ragy Sharkawy, edited by Alexander A-Malek, in http://www.copticheritage.org/PagEd+index-page_id-319.phtml

(iv) St. Cyril of Jerusalem, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. VII, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), p. 61.