Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Syria, was a great man with his master and in high favor, because by him the Lord had given victory to Syria. He was a mighty man of valor, but he was a leper. Now the Syrians on one of their raids had carried off a little maid from the land of Israel, and she waited on Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “Would that my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” So Naaman went in and told his lord, “Thus and so spoke the maiden from the land of Israel.” And the king of Syria said, “Go now, and I will send a letter to the king of Israel.” So he went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand sheckels of gold, and ten festal garments. And he borught the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you Naaman my servant, that you may cure him of his leprosy.” And when the king of Israel read the letter, he rent his clothes and said, “Am I God, to kill and to make alive, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Only consider, and see how he is seeking a quarrel with me.” But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had rent his cloths, he sent to the king, saying, “Why have you rent your clothes? Let him come now to me, that he may know that there is a prophet in Israel.” So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the door of Elisha’s house. And Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” But Naaman was angry, and went away, saying, “Behold, I thought that he would surely come out to me, and stand, and call on the name of the Lord his God, and wave his hand over the place, and cure the leper. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” So he turned and went away in a rage. But his servants came near and said to him, “My father, if the prophet had commanded you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much rather, then, when he says to you, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” So he went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.
II Kings 5: 1-14
There is a temptation in Orthodoxy to emphasize tradition and ritual. There are some who fall into the trap of worshipping ritual. There are people who go to church on Holy Wednesday each year to “get the oil.” They don’t necessarily even know what it means. They just know that Holy Wednesday is the day we “get the oil.” We check the Holy Unction box once a year. I know that this is true because one year when I celebrated Holy Unction, I asked the people why they came to church, and the answer I got was “to get the oil,” not for reconciliation with God, or spiritual healing, or anything else. Ritual is important but it is not the major reason why we go to church.
Tradition is very closely tied to ritual. We have some very beautiful traditions in the Orthodox Church, like icons, vestments, and other trappings, and even beautiful and rich services with powerful hymns and a sense of pageantry. We practice traditions but even these are not the essence of what we believe.
Many people don’t recognize that at the heart of all that we are doing is the Scriptures. The Holy Bible is a book of the history of the Christian faith. It is God’s love letter to His creation, authored by people who have been inspired by the Holy Spirit. The Bible contains the history of God’s people, the Old Testament. The Old Testament contains the creation of the world, the fall of mankind, and God’s plan for the salvation of the world revealed through the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob), the Exodus from Egypt, the giving of the Law (Moses), and through the writings of the Prophets who would speak in every generation of the coming Messiah.
The New Testament is about the salvific work of Jesus Christ and the establishment of the early Church.
The central belief of Christianity is that Jesus Christ is the Incarnate Son of God, Who came into the world to die for our sins and open to us the path back to Paradise that was lost at the Fall. His mission is summarized succinctly in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave His Only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”
A Christian understands and accepts three things. First, God created the world. Someone greater than us made us. He made us perfect. He made us in His image and likeness. He made us to be like Him and with Him. Second, the world fell through sin. Sin separates us from God. Third, Jesus Christ came to the world to redeem the world from sin.
In order to accept these things, we have to believe that God made us. We have to understand that we are sinful. We have to believe in God’s promise of eternal life. We have to believe that Jesus Christ will lead us to eternal life. And we have to live out what we believe by loving God and serving our neighbor.
The Church and its beautiful traditions and practices help us in learning and living what is in the Bible. Nothing we do is separate from Scripture. Everything we believe is in Scripture. And everything we do to strengthen our belief comes from Scripture. Our Orthodox Traditions are based in Scripture.
We have already discussed how oil is used in Scripture—for reconciliation, a sign of being chosen by God and for healing. In examining the Sacrament of Holy Unction, which we will reflect on in upcoming days, we will examine seven Epistles, seven Gospels, and seven prayers. Why seven? This number is Biblical as well. In II Kings 5, we read the story of Naaman, the king of Syria, who also happened to be a leper. Elisha, a prophet (and successor to the Prophet Elijah) sent for Naaman to come to Elisha’s house, to be cured of his leprosy. When Naaman arrived, the messenger of Elisha told Naaman to go and wash in the Jordan River seven times and his flesh would be restored. Naaman was angry for two reasons. First, he thought that his healing would be done instantly by the prophet, and he was being sent away to go and wash in a river. Second, because he was Syrian, and Israel and Syria were not always getting along, he didn’t want to go and wash in a river of Israel. Naaman’s servants convinced him to go wash in the Jordan River, and when he did, his flesh was restored. This is where the number seven (seven Epistles, seven Gospels, and seven prayers) comes from. Properly done, Holy Unction is celebrated by seven priests, and those who attend are anointed seven times, replicating the seven washings of Naaman in the Jordan River. For practical purposes, this cannot be done. Anointing is done once at the end of the service.
One other important thing to take away from this passage about Naaman is the reasoning of the servants who convinced him to wash in the Jordan River. They said to him “My father, if the prophet had commanded you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much rather, then, when he says to you’ Wash, and be clean’?” (II Kings 5:13) God doesn’t ask us to conquer kingdoms, pile up riches, or fight enemies in order to reach salvation. He asks us to be humble, to love Him, to love one another, to be patient and forgive one another, and to be patient and focused on Him. Holy Unction helps reinforce these things.
It is difficult to be a Christian and separated from the Scriptures. They are a foundation for what we believe and how we are to live. It is also difficult to be a Christian and be separated from a church community. Scriptures provide the basis for our personal faith as well as the Traditions and practices of the Orthodox Church.
O Lord, Who of old showed forth an olive-branch unto the abating of the Flood through Your Divine command, save the sufferers, through Your mercy. (3rd Ode)
Read the Bible daily!