This is the second part of my blog based upon Paul Meyendorff’s book THE ANOINTING OF THE SICK. The blog began with Healing and Salvation. While appreciating Meyendorff’s historical analysis of the Sacrament of Healing and his call for a restoration to more frequent use of the sacrament, I was disappointed that he hadn’t thought more about how the Church’s services of healing could be used as part of the missionary and evangelical outreach of the Church.
The cosmic nature of salvation is part of the beauty of Orthodox Christianity. Sickness and suffering are not fair and just, happening only to the wicked and unbeliever. They happen because there is a fundamental brokenness in creation itself – a separation of creation from God which affects all people because we all are born into a world separated from God through sin. As Meyendorff writes:
Sickness, suffering, and death are the inevitable result of the separation between God and humanity that took place when humanity disobeyed God’s command, when it chose to please itself rather than God. Sickness, suffering and death are the lot of all humanity in this fallen world—we all share the same fate, saint and sinner, young and old. Even Jesus Christ, who was totally without sin, shared our fate when he condescended to suffer and die – this is the very essence of the mystery of the incarnation. …. In each of us, the process of disease, decay, and ultimately death begins from the very moment that we are conceived. When we sin, moreover, we contribute to a process that is already underway in each of us. This is the state of the world in which we live, and this is the sad reality that the Son of God came to overcome. (p 69)
As Meyendorff rightfully goes on to say,
With the fall of Adam, both humanity and the entire cosmos were affected. Illness, therefore, is not the root problem, but only a symptom. The far more significant consequence of the fall was the rupture of the communion between God and humanity, between humans among themselves, and between humanity and the rest of creation. For Christians, sickness and death are not the real problem: rather, it is alienation from God, and the resulting spiritual death, which are the real tragedy. (p 84)
Seeing disease and suffering as not the problem of humanity, but the symptom of a deeper problem frames the entire understanding of humanity in a particularly Christian way. The Church is engaged in a healing ministry. The Church recognizes that God provided in the world herbs and elements for healing, and gifted some humans such as nurses, pharmacologists and doctors with the knowledge and gift of healing, all of which are blessings from God. But the Church also acknowledges that ultimately such healing too has a temporary nature to it, just like disease. For humans despite healing, despite Christ being the incarnate God, continue to age, become diseased and die. Disease and death are but the symptoms of the underlying problem of humanity – we are separated from God. Both illness and medical healing belong to temporal creation and do not answer ultimate questions.
The healing services provide us with the opportunity to acknowledge before God our separation from Him, to repent of how we have contributed to this separation and how this separation has unfairly affected even innocent children and infants, besides all creatures on our planet. We acknowledge our need for God’s forgiveness and mercy, and we repent of our inability to continuously co-operate with God in our permanent healing and eternal salvation.
“As Fr Alexander Schmemann puts it so well,
‘Healing is a sacrament because its purpose or end is not health as such, but the entrance of man into the life of the Kingdom, into the “joy and peace” of the Holy Spirit. In Christ, everything in this world, and this means health and disease, joy and suffering, has become an ascension to, and entrance into this new life, its experience and anticipation.’”
Meyendorff’s book offers numerous prayers from tradition as well as rubrics including all prayers for the two services of healing. One prayer from the oldest known service book for priests (Byzantine 8th Century) says,
O holy Father, physician of our souls and bodies, who sent your only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who heals every infirmity and delivers from death, through the grace of your Christ heal also your servant (name) from the infirmities of the body which afflict him (her) and enliven him (her) with your good will so that he (she) may thank you by fulfilling good deeds, for yours is the power, and yours is the kingdom….
The Church on earth carries on the mission and ministry of the incarnate God – dealing with the temporal problems which plague not only humankind but all living things. The Church deals with these symptoms of what is ultimately killing humanity and the world – separation from the living God. Healing humanity has as its ultimate goal communion with the Creator God: the restoration of creation’s right relationship with the Creator.