Paul Meyendorff’s much delayed book THE ANOINTING OF THE SICK was finally published and reading the first chapter convinced me of the importance of parishes offering liturgical services of healing. Meyendorff follows and endorses the liturgical theology of Fr. Alexander Schmemann as he advocates for a restoration of the Sacramental rite of healing for baptized Orthodox parish members. His book offers a historical overview of how the rite changed over time, fell into disuse in some traditionally Orthodox cultures and emerged as a rite in Holy Week in the Byzantine Greek tradition rather late in history.
Meyendorff shows there is an intimate connection between salvation, baptism, repentance, forgiveness, communion and healing.
In baptism, we enter into a new relationship with God, with Christ, in which sin, sickness, and death no longer dominate. We become children of God, heirs of the kingdom, members of Christ’s body, the Church. This new relationship is to endure for ever, and neither sickness nor death can destroy it. It is a new form of human existence. Our head is no longer the ‘old Adam,’ who brought sin, sickness, and death into the world, but Christ, the ‘new Adam,’ who ‘destroys death by death’ and gives us eternal life. Baptism, therefore, is the sacrament of healing par excellence, a healing aimed at the whole person, body, soul, and spirit. (pp 10-11)
In the life in Christ, we gain a new perspective on everything we humans experience – sickness, suffering and death cannot separate us from God‘s love (Romans 8:38-39) and are proven to be temporary aberrations which Christ has overcome (John 16:33). Sickness thus is not given invincible power in human life, illness is not viewed as defeat, but rather as conditions with limited duration when viewed from the eternity of Christ’s victory over death. Our life, our suffering is united to Christ’s and given meaning in Christ who overcomes pain and illness. We no longer suffer alone, but united to Christ our Lord who triumphs over suffering – we too pass from suffering and death to eternal life.
Baptism, therefore, is the paradigmatic healing sacrament. Fallen humanity is recreated; our sins are forgiven; the image of God in us is restored; real, intimate communion with God, destroyed because of sin, is again made possible. The sickness and death which once ruled our lives are defeated, in the sense that they, just like the cross, become a means of victory and a passage into the kingdom. The brokenness of our human existence is abolished as we are incorporated into the Church, the body of Christ, through which we are saved. We are no longer left to live out our lives alone, to suffer and die a meaningless death. Rather, in the Church, our suffering and death become a means to victory, following in the footsteps of Christ, his death on the cross and his resurrection. Through baptism, we are healed, and we are charged to bring this healing ministry to the world around us, to our family, to our neighbor, to all who we encounter. (pp 22-23)
While I found Meyendorff’s exposition to be inspiring, I have to admit the last sentence in the above quote is not dealt with very well in the book. Meyendorff writes mostly about restoring the sacrament of healing – which he says is closed and limited only to baptized Orthodox Christians. Of course one could argue that if we are to bring healing to the world, then we must convert the world to Orthodoxy and then invite them to the sacraments including anointing for the sick. I am personally troubled by this thinking from the point of view that Christ first brought healing to the world before His death and resurrection. He did not bring healing just to Jews, but also to the hated Samaritans and Romans. He did not bring healing only to Orthodox Christians, but to the world, to all who believed. Meyendorff writes mostly about the sacrament of healing which he sees as limited to Orthodox Christians, and thus keeps the healing mission of the Church focused inward on our own members and excludes those who are not members in good standing. He briefly mentions the non-Orthodox, but as a pastor in a missionary situation I wanted to see more written about the Church’s mission to the world and how prayers and healing are something we have to offer to our non-Orthodox and non-believing neighbors, co-workers, family members. Before God gave the Law to the Jews He saved them from slavery in Egypt. Before Christians had rules for members, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Healing is something Christ’s incarnation, death and resurrection have done for the world (“On behalf of all things and for all things” as we say in the Liturgy), not just for rule abiding people because the entire world was subject to futility, death and decay (Romans 8:19ff). The ministry of intercessory prayer and anointing the sick belong not just to the pastoral work of the Church but also to its evangelical and missionary efforts of being a light to the world and giving hope to humanity in the face of suffering and death.
4 thoughts on “Healing and Salvation”
I rarely have gone to a healing service asking for healing for one of the minor infirmities which I have. Rather, I offer family members or friends who truly are suffering from their illness or condition. I was glad to see you disagree with Meyendorff’s limiting the healing service to baptized Orthodox church members but I wonder whether my approach to the healing service is valid.
Praying for others, considering others as more important than yourself are very much in line with Christ like love. Meyendorff makes a good point in his book that the Christian life is a communal life – thus assembling together as community for prayer and healing is normative for Christians, but sometimes forgotten in our very individualistic world. Part of the healing needed in the world is the overcoming of the alienation and separateness and isolation which are hallmarks of the modern world. We live with 6 billion other people on the planet and yet are isolated, lonely, alienated and forgotten! So assembling with others for prayer is part of the Christian healing to overcome the brokenness of a world shattered by sin. As Genesis portrays the effects of the Fall, humans become separated from God, from the rest of creation and even from each other.
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Healing is NOT left to the orthodoxy…rather…to all believers, whatever flavor of worship they are brought up in…and even if not in one particular discipline/denomination. This realization, in and of itself, is awe-inspiring. I read of Father Fernando Suarez, from the Philippines via Canada who is gifted with the gift of healing. He selflessly confers healing to all who attend his masses. Likewise, there are protestant healers of the same regard. God is God…and has no pretension to look at denominations, rather, simply empower followers. Isn’t it great to follow the true God…and be mystified as to how He reveals himself to the world?