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The mystery of holy unction provides both physical and spiritual healing with holy oil blessed by the Holy Spirit. It is most commonly celebrated during Holy Week on Holy Wednesday evening, but private services are also common. Everyone in the parish in good ecclesiastical standing may be anointed with the holy oil for the healing of spiritual and bodily ills. As this is one of the sacraments of the Orthodox Church, it may be administered only to Orthodox Christians.
The oil carries God's grace both to renew the body and to cleanse the spirit. The service follows the apostolic tradition mentioned in the New Testament: "...let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven" (James 5:14-15).
Holy unction is a mystery of great comfort to the faithful. It provides uplifting and asks for patience to accept the will of God whatever the physical outcome.
The full service is composed of psalms from the Old Testament, hymns of direct supplication to God, and prayers to the saints to intercede for the petitioner. In addition, there are seven readings from the Gospels preceded by seven other New Testament writings, notably the epistles of St. Paul and St. James. After each set of scriptural readings, a prayer is offered on behalf of the penitent by the priest asking for forgiveness and the sanctification of the oil. Traditionally, the service is celebrated by seven priests, but where fewer than seven priests are available (which is often the case), it will be served by at least one.
At the end of the service, the priest puts holy oil on the forehead, eyes, ears, nostrils, lips, chest, and hands of the parishioners in the form of the cross, saying: "O Holy Father, physician of our souls and bodies, heal Thy servant [name] from every physical and emotional affliction" (Russian tradition) or "The blessing of our Lord, God and Saviour Jesus Christ: for the healing of the soul and body of the servant of God, [name], always: now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen" (Greek tradition). The exact wording varies according to tradition and translation.
When the unction is received privately, the full service is often not performed, but simply the anointing itself is done along with a few prayers.
One of the earliest written records of Holy Unction is recorded in the Euchologion of Serapion of Thmuis, a contemporary of St. Athanasius (ca. 293-373). This document forms the basis for the Alexandrian Rite which differs to the Byzantine Rite and is extant at the Great Lavra of Mount Athos.