There are two occasions for holding an unction service: one is when a person is very ill; the other is Wednesday of Holy Week. Actually, we *could* have one whenever we want. So why don’t we? I’m not sure – it could be out of respect, or it could be because it’s long and tedious.
So what’s Holy Unction? It’s the stylized, sacramental version of this:
Is anyone among you sick? 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. (James 5:14)
So, like everything else it’s a service. A very long, thorough service, wherein the priest or deacon reads seven sets of passages about, involving, or containing veiled references to healing. The alter boys stand next to a table with sand, candles, oil, and special blessed unction oil. After each reading they light another candle, starting from the inside and working outward. Eventually I end up staring vacantly at these candles and keeping track of how quickly they burn, and being slightly OCD when a candle further in threatens to burn faster than the ones on the outside, while secretly hoping that those outer ones burn all the way to the sand. There are also a great many litanies. Near the end all the Orthodox get anointed with the special blessed oil, “for the healing of soul and body,” and if it’s a welcoming sort of church non-Orthodox get anointed with other oil. However, if you’re not Orthodox and not a catechumen either, don’t go to this service. No, really. It’s three hours long, and nothing you’ll want to see is happening for two hours and forty-five minutes of that. Since you’re standing and listening, it feels more like four. So why do we do it? Because most of us are sick, and those of who aren’t are still sinful, which is practically the same thing.
Interestingly, Unction is the Eastern version of the anointing with oil in the “last rites” of Catholicism, with a slightly different emphasis. The churches agree that there are two faces to the anointing service: one to be prepared to greet death in peace, and the other toward healing. On the whole, Catholics tend to emphasize the former, while Orthodox emphasize the latter – especially in the Holy Wednesday service, in which everyone participates, well or ill.
Here’s a better account of the sacrament:
The Sacrament of Holy Unction is a Sacrament of Divine Sanction by which Divine Grace imparts to the afflicted, through anointing with oil, the healing of both body and soul. It pre—supposes a sick person, the calling of the Presbyters of the Church to pray over the sick person, the anointing with oil in the name of the LORD, the reading of prayers of Faith and the invocation of the Grace of GOD to heal the body and forgive sin. JAMES 5:14—15
The ceremony of the anointing with oil of the person who is sick bodily or spiritually is not a mere physical healing stemming from the oil itself but also is the absolution of sins, which is not related to the therapeutic power of oil. Furthermore, the healing depends on prayers of Faith, not merely upon the oil itself, for “THE PRAYER OF FAITH WILL SAVE THE SICK MAN AND THE LORD WILL RAISE HIM UP.”
The perceptible signs of the Sacrament are the anointing with sanctified oil and the PRAYER OF FAITH. The invisible sign is the Divine Grace imparted both for the healing of the body and remissions of sins. However, the healing of the body depends on GOD’S Will, which is unknown to man, but the purpose is always the salvation of man, for CHRIST JESUS CAME INTO THE WORLD TO SAVE SINNERS. The Orthodox Confession of Faith states that in Holy Unction the fruits of the absolution of sins and the healing of body are found. However, while healing of the body may not always be attained, the absolution of the sins of the soul of the repentant sick person always occurs. Apostle James stressed: IF HE HAS COMMITFED SINS, HE WILL BE FORGIVEN. Fruits of the Sacrament of Holy Unction are the absolution of sin, which often is the cause of bodily ills, through prayer and oil as the carriers of Divine Grace.
Tradition records that seven Presbyters could be present to administer the Sacrament, but a lesser number of Priests present does not lessen the validity of the Sacrament. The anointing with oil of the various parts of the body of the believer includes the forehead, cheeks, and hands. The recipient of the Sacrament of Holy Unction should be prepared spiritually to actively participate in it through prayer and Faith. Although bodily afflictions may not be cured, the recipient should accept the Will of GOD and not consider this as a rebuke or a failure to gain absolution of sins. The absolution of sins is granted to the recipient who has sincere Faith in GOD’S Will and constant prayers, although GOD’S Will may not be manifest in bodily cures.