“Is anyone among you sick? Let him call the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.” James 5:14
One of the aspects of pastoral ministry is visiting people when they are sick. The Romanian Patriarchate has designated this as one where we should focus on the ministry of the sick. We need to study this Sacrament and teach about it because we have lost the meaning of it.
In times past when the priest came to the hospital it was because the end was near. Sometimes that is in fact the case. Our Orthodox spirituality has been infected by this western concept of last rites or extreme unction. From an Orthodox perspective this is the Sacrament of the Sick or the Sacrament of Anointing if you will. This is for all illness of not only the body but of the mind and of the spirit.
In the Scripture rom St. James I quoted above, James does not say when you are dying, or if you are critically ill call the elders, no, he says, “If anyone is sick” no other qualifiers are used. If you are sick, or having surgery or for a spiritual matter call the elders and we will pray for you.
The healing ministry of the Church is as old as the Church is itself. There are many examples in Scripture of Jesus healing various people and there is also the patristic tradition of praying for those who are ill. St. Ireneaus writing the second century, tell the story of miracles during his day. Many of the fathers and mother that followed would write about healing in their days as well. The 18th century Russian Monk, St. Seraphim of Sarov is credited with many healings and the oil from the lamps of such saints at John Maximovitch have been known to work miracles.
When the priest prays for the person who is sick he does not pray alone but the church prays with him. When we pray we are never alone, we are surrounded by a cloud of witness. However when we do pray for the sick we neither command God to heal or doubt his ability to heal. Rather we plead for his promise mercy on all who are ill. We also pray for those who are present for the family and friends of the one who is sick for the strength they will need to sustain them along the journey.
In the Orthodox Church today there exists a prayer that can be used at any time. There is of course the longer prayer service that is customarily used in Byzantine Churches during Holy Week when the oil is blessed and all present are anointed. That service is much more complex. But when the priest is called he prays for the sick person and anoints them with oil saying the following prayer:
O Lord Almighty, Healer of our souls and bodies, who put down and raise up, who chastise and heal also, visit now in Your mercy our brother or sister (N), who is ill. Stretch forth Your arm, which is full of healing and health, and raise (him/her) up from this bed, and cure this illness. Put away the spirit of disease and every malady and pain and fever. And if (he/she) has committed sins and transgressions, grant remission and forgiveness, because You love mankind.
Again, we ask God we never command, and we ask that His will be done in this and in all things. If it be His will we ask that He heals the person who is sick. Asking for the priest to anoint a sick person does not mean that the end is near, it simply means we are following the example left to us in Scripture, If anyone is sick call the elders and they will pray and anoint with oil.