Unction and the Invitation of God

Unction and the Invitation of God

Published: Apr 26, 2005 by Maria Gwyn McDowell

Last night was Holy Wednesday, the Service of Unction. Fr. Peter gave a short sermon in which he answered the question, who may come forward to receive unction, and need they be Orthodox? His answer, which he pulled from the seven prayers of the priest during the service, was simple: if you are in need, if you desire the healing of God, come forward. While he did not mention this, the seven gospel readings reflect the open invitation of God. Jesus' answer to the question, 'who is my neighbor' is that your neighbor is the one you treat as your neighbor (Luke 10:25-37). Jesus picks out of the crowd Zacchaeus, whose sin in the eyes of his people is obvious as he sits among tax collectors (Luke 19:1-10). Jesus sends his disciples out to freely give healing and teaching to those outside the bounds of the religious community (Matthew 10:1 & 10:5-8). Jesus calls us to unlimited forgiveness (Matthew 8:14-23), and condemns not using gifts for the benefit of others (Matthew 25:1-13). The Syrophonecian woman is honored precisely because she understood that there was enough of God to go around (Matthew 15:21-28). The gospel readings conclude with Jesus' demand that we learn what the following scripture means: "'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners" (Matthew 9:9-13).

The motivation for my reflection however, is not the readings itself, but a saddening conversation I had immediately after the sermon. A friend whispered that the sermon should have emphasized that the sacrament of unction is only available to Orthodox. He reasonably argued that every other sacrament is for Orthodox, and if we allow non-Orthodox to receive the oil of healing, we are either diminishing unction as a sacrament, or we should allow any one who comes forward to receive any other sacrament, even the Eucharist. Of course, my inclination is to say, "precisely."

Aren't there a variety of questions we should think about? Does every sacrament need to have the same requirements? There may be reasons to limit the reception of the Eucharist, but is that true for all sacraments? The entire thrust of the gospels is the open invitation of Jesus to participate in God. This is the good news! There is no restriction placed in these readings. As a matter of fact, the people whom Jesus invites are the outcast, the least, the fringes of the society. He invites them despite the fact that by doing so, he is flying in the face of religious tradition. Perhaps he does so because it is an affront to religiosity. Isn't this the Jesus we need to take seriously? When we deny someone a sacrament, are we rejecting a person whom God has invited? In the service of Unction, sin, need, and desire are the only requirements, and there is no one who lacks at least one (sin) of these three! The Church does not exist to protect God, to defend the creator of heaven and earth. The Church is the community who participates in God, a people gathered by God through whom God works. It is not our job to decide who is invited, but to welcome those who come, for whatever reason. The sacraments are a real symbol and real presence of God's grace. God's desire is that all be saved, that all may be saved (1 Timothy 2:4-6). At the very least, we must be cautious when we choose to restrict the reception of God's grace. Fortunately, God can and does work around our reception. But that does not make us less accountable for being more concerned with 'orthodoxy' than with grace, mercy, healing, hope, life; more concerned with proper beliefs than with actually living the gospel which is offered to all who desire it, regardless of the extent of their belief. After all, tonight we will read about the utter failure of those who committed themselves to following Jesus. If they didn't get it, yet Jesus was present to them, who are we to say who is welcome to receive the grace of God?