In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and His train filled the temple. Above Him stood the Seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory.”
And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of Him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Then flew one of the Seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coal, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth, and said: “Behold this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin is forgiven.”
O Lord our God, You chasten and again heal; You lift the indigent from the ground and dunghill; Father of orphans, and Haven of tempest-tossed; Physician of the ailing, Who without toil bears our weaknesses, and accepts our infirmities; it is You, Who cheerfully shows mercy, and passes over our iniquities, taking away our unrighteousness; quick to help and slow to wrath; You breathed on Your Disciples, and said: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven.” It is You Who accept the repentance of sinners and have the power to pardon countless and grievous sins, bestowing healing upon all who continue in weakness and long-enduring illness. It is You, Lord, Who have also called me, Your humble, sinful and unworthy servant, caught up in many sins, and wallowing in the pleasures of life, to the holy and exceedingly lofty degree of the priesthood, and to enter within the innermost veil, into the holy of holies, where the holy Angels desire to penetrate and hear the voice of the Lord God announcing glad tidings, and to behold with their own eyes the presence of the sacred Oblation, and to enjoy the divine and sacred Liturgy. You, Lord, deemed me worthy to minister Your heavenly Mysteries, and offer You gifts and sacrifices for our sins, and the ignorances of people; and to mediate for Your reason-endowed sheep, so that, through Your great and ineffable love for mankind, You may blot out their transgressions. All-merciful King, hear the voice of my prayer at this hour and holy day, and at all times and places; and to these, Your servants, who are ailing in soul and body, grant Your healing, remitting their sins, and pardoning their transgressions both voluntary and involuntary, treating their incurable wounds, and every ailment and malady. Give health to their souls, You, Who touched Peter’s mother-in-law, who, having been cured of her fever, arose and ministered to You. O Master, grant healing and deliverance from every devastating pain to these Your servants. (from the 5th prayer)
The Fifth Prayer of Holy Unction is very personal to me because it begins by talking about the priesthood. When I offer this prayer, I go into the altar and get on my knees in front of the Altar Table, the same place where I knelt years ago to receive the Sacrament of Ordination, the same place where I am privileged to stand when celebrating the Divine Liturgy. This prayer usually brings tears to my eyes when it mentions that even the angels don’t get to stand in front of the Holy Altar.
Holy Unction involves taking something ordinary, oil, and making it extraordinary through prayer and the grace of the Holy Spirit. Then Holy Unction is given to ordinary, suffering people and they become extraordinary through spiritual healing. If Holy Unction has the power to do this, imagine how much power the Sacrament of Ordination has. Because Ordination allows an ordinary, sinful man, to become extraordinary, to stand in front of the Holy Altar and pray before God on behalf of the people. It allowed his sinful mind to conduct the services. It allows his sinful mouth to invoke the words of prayer, to ask for the Holy Spirit to come down in the sacraments and to preach the Word of God. It allows his sinful hands to touch the Holy Gifts, and to stand in the place of God’s hand in the sacraments. The priesthood, in fact, is so lofty, that if any priest were to think about it for too long, they would probably quit for fear.
In the Scripture quote from Isaiah 7, the prophet has a vision in the temple. He sees angels around the throne of God. The prophet knows he is experiencing God’s glory, seeing His angels and hearing their voices. He feels unworthy, lost, unclean. Then one of the Seraphim (an angel) takes a burning coal from the altar with tongs and holds it to the mouth of the prophet, telling him “Behold this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven.” (Isaiah 6:7)
In the prayer, we see a beautiful image of God, “Who without toil bears our weaknesses and accepts our infirmities,” “Who cheerfully shows mercy and passes over our iniquities,” “quick to help and slow to wrath.” It is God Who reassures us when we feel like the prophet—unworthy, lost, unclean—that we are indeed worthy of His love and mercy. It is God Who roots for us when we can’t root for ourselves.
We read in the prayer that the Lord bestows “healing upon all who continue in weakness.” This is a comfort. God knows that one prayer, one confession, one act of repentance, is not going to last forever. He knows that we will repeat our mistakes. Going back to the second prayer, He tells us “as often as you fall, get up.” He knows we will fall again continually. The goal then does not become not to fall, but as often as we fall to get up again.
The prayer continues, speaking personally to the priest who is offering it. How true, when it describes the priest as “caught up in many sins and wallowing in the pleasures of life.” This statement humbles me each time I pray it, as I can recall quickly the sins that I wallow in. The prayer then goes on to describe the pleasures of the priesthood— “to enter within the innermost veil, into the holy of holies, where the holy Angels desire to penetrate and hear the voice of the Lord God announcing glad tidings, and to behold with their own eyes the presence of the sacred Oblation, and to enjoy the divine and sacred Liturgy.” These are the words that bring tears into my eyes, as I realize how cavalier I can be towards the Liturgy at times. I take for granted something that the angels want and can’t have!
And yet, someone has to go for the people, someone has to stand at the altar and offer the Divine Services. Sadly, all those who do so are wallowing in some sin. Therefore, it is only by God’s grace that a sinful man can take on this extraordinary role. It is only with God’s grace that a sinful man can stand at the Holy Altar and “offer gifts and sacrifices for sins, and the ignorances of people.” The one who is offering the sacrifice is sinful himself!
The priest then prays for the people entrusted to his care. He prays for God to hear his prayer, even though it is offered by unclean lips. He prays that God will wipe away their transgressions, healing their spiritual wounds, and giving health to their souls.
Speaking again personally in this reflection regarding this beautiful prayer, I am glad that this prayer is part of the Sacrament Holy Unction because it recognizes the sinfulness of the celebrant and also the mercy of God, which compensates for his sinfulness. It also reminds the people to pray for, support, and encourage their priest. And it reassures the people that the Grace of the Holy Spirit is what effects the sacrament, in spite of the inadequacies of the priest.
You Who have commanded the ailing to summon Your divinely ordained Priests, and to be healed by prayers and the anointing with Your Oil, O Loving Lord, save the anointed, through Your mercy. (4th Ode)
Pray for your priest, as your priest prays for you!