by Fr. Michael Butler
On 15 November, the first day of the Nativity Fast, I concelebrated a service of Holy Unction. Every year several of the clergy in Cleveland get together for this service, which is particularly loved by Romanians, so we usually serve it at one of the local Romanian churches.
There were about a 125 people there that evening, mostly Romanian to be sure, but people from several other Orthodox parishes, as well. There were four priests concelebrating.
One of the things which the Romanians do during an Unction Service is to try to kneel under the Gospel book while each of the seven Gospel readings is being proclaimed. If they can’t get under the Gospel book, they will kneel down under the priest’s stole and his phelonion even, or, if they can’t get that close, kneel down and put their hand on the shoulder of somebody who is closer. The other priests, when it isn’t their turn to read the Gospel, will move to another part of the church so that the faithful can gather around them there. And they gather tightly, so the priest could not fall over if he wanted to, and they pull all his vestments out on all sides to get underneath them. This simple act of piety is beautiful and moves most priests to humility, myself included.
But that was not the best part of the service.
In addition, all of the faithful brought lists of names for people to be remembered at the service. The departed are not remembered at an Unction Service, only the living. Still, there were over a hundred pages of names, with thousands of people to be remembered. The priests each take a stack of pages and read the names aloud during the service, to pray for them, so that everyone can be commemorated and remembered before God. When I visited Romania in 1999 I remember being given stacks of these lists, and a stole, and reading names for hours every morning during Matins. Would that more of our people thought to remember themselves and their loved ones in this way at all of the services. I found myself moved by this simple act of piety, as well.
But that was not the best part of the service either.
The best part of the service came when it fell to me to read the sixth Gospel. Again, people thronged around me and crawled under the Gospel book and under my vestments, so much so that my vestments stood out all around me like a tent. The reading is from St Matthew 15.21-28, the account of the Canaanite woman who cried after Jesus to come and heal her daughter. I came to the line which says,
“But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me’.”
When I said that, all of these voices underneath my vestments repeated back the same words,
“Lord, help me.”
Now, I don’t know if it is a particular Romanian custom to wait for these words to repeat them, or if it was a spontaneous act of piety, but I was deeply moved. Here were people begging God’s mercy for their health and for their loved ones; who made the words of the Gospel their own; who identified with the Canaanite woman, who could lay no claim on Christ but only to beg for the crumbs that fall from the Master’s table. It is a rare thing to be among people who are listening to the Scriptures so attentively that they make the Gospel their own.
At that point whatever hardness I had in my heart was broken away, and I could do nothing else for the rest of the service but pray fervently for everyone who was there, and for all the people whose names that I was given to commemorate.
“O Lord, have mercy on your servants whom you have purchased with your precious blood.”
At the end of the service it took most of an hour for all four priests to anoint each person who came, but I could have stood there and anointed people all night out of gratitude for the gift they had given to me.
And what was that gift? They had asked nothing more of me but that I be a faithful priest and serve the Unction Service as it is prescribed, to read the Gospel and to say the prayers, to commemorate the names and to anoint the people. But by their clear love for Christ and manifest piety they drew out of me more than I thought was in me.
In one of his books, Fr Zachariah of Essex says that if people come to their clergy, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, and looking for the Word of God, they can make prophets out of their priests.
When people draw out from priests more than they know is in them, when they draw out from priests the Word of God for which they hunger, not only will Christ satisfy their desire (regardless of the worthiness of the priest), but He will heal the priest whom He uses.
In this way I was healed at an Unction Service, which I served for the benefit of others. And for that I am grateful.
Fr. Michael Butler is the priest of St. Innocent Orthodox Church in Olmsted Falls, OH. He got his Ph.D. from Fordham University, studying under Fr. John Meyendork, on St. Maximus of Confessor.