Liturgical Handbook of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad
How is the rite of ‘General Unction’ (anointing) served during Great Lent?
Category: Lenten Services

In our Church Abroad the Mystery of Unction, which normally is performed for individuals in extreme illness, is performed once a year ‘generally’, for all baptised, confessed Orthodox Christians, during the span of Great Lent. This service is performed by a Bishop, and is not performed in every parish but in cathedrals or centrally-located, larger parishes, to which clergy and faithful from surrounding parishes assemble together. It is worth stating this explicitly to avoid a confusion that arises from more recent customs witnessed elsewhere: General Unction is not, and is not meant, to be served in every parish. It is meant, as its name in Russian suggests (Soborovannie, ‘a coming together’), to bring together clergy and faithful of a wide region in a single place. For this reason, when there are multiple parishes within a reasonable commuting distance from one another, the Bishop will not celebrate Unction in each parish, but only in one — to which the clergy and the faithful of the others will come. It is customary in this Diocese, in such cases, to alternate year by year the parish that ‘hosts’ the Unction service for a given region.

The precise order of service to be followed is in the edition Чин последование таинства Елеосвящения / The Rite of the Mystery of Holy Unction, Parallel Church Slavonic and English Texts as published by Russkiy Pastyr (2010). This volume not only provides the complete text of the service in dual languages, but also compiles it from the Trebnik (Book of Needs), where the service is provided in the form served at various times throughout the year, into precisely the form used for the ‘general’ service of Unction during Great Lent. (English-speaking parishes please take note: the English translation used in this volume regrettably does not employ the Synodally-authorised translations of the Church Abroad; therefore, the ideal situation will be for choir directors, prior to the service, to paste in the standard English translations of the common parts of the service [e.g. the familiar troparia, etc., which can easily be found in the usual service books], using the idiosyncratic English of the volume only for those portions of the service that are not translated elsewhere — in this way better serving the faithful.) It is important to note that the rite of General Unction cannot easily be served directly from the Book of Needs, as the service found there does not contain the modifications used for the communal service. Either the above volume should be used, or one must obtain a Church Slavonic edition specifically of the General Unction service for Lent.

The order of service as blessed for our Diocese is exactly as printed in the indicated volume, following the rubrics indicated therein, with these additional explanatory notes that are not expressly indicated in the text:

  • The service is presided over by the Bishop, ideally together with six serving Priests (if there are additional Priests, they may hear confessions during the service) and one or more Deacons. The Bishop vests in ‘lesser vestments’ (mantia with epitrahil, cuffs, small omofor and klobuk); Priests vest in epitrahil, cuffs and phelon over their ryassa; Deacons vest fully as always. The colour of vestments is purple, never black (we never celebrate sacraments in black vestments). All the clergy exit through the Royal Doors at the beginning of the service, two Priests carrying the Gospel Book which is laid on an analoy in the centre of the temple. The Bishop stands on the cathedra and the Priests in two ranks before him, facing each other. A little way before (to the west) of the central analoy a small table is placed before the service begins, upon which is set the tray containing seven unlit candles, an empty vessel of suitable size (e.g. a bowl), and two smaller vessels, one containing unblessed olive oil, the other containing red wine. The empty vessel must be large enough to contain the contents of both the others once they are mixed. As the clergy take their places, all seven candles are lit.
  • When the Clergy are in place, the Bishop distributes a hand candle to each Priest, retaining one for himself. These are held throughout the service. The Faithful also should be instructed to purchase a candle to hold throughout the service.
  • A full censing of the Temple and faithful is undertaken after the opening blessing.
  • After the opening prayers, Psalm 142, little litany, troparia and then Psalm 50, the Canon is sung thusly: the choir sings the irmos, and then the refrain introducing each tropar (‘O merciful Lord, hearken to the supplication of Thy servants who pray unto Thee’ / ‘Милостиве Господи, услыши молитву раб Своих, молящихся Тебе’). The Bishop reads the troparia of the canon, though if he so wishes he may distribute some of these also to the Priests.
  • At the end of Ode Three, the Bishop says ‘Lord, have mercy’ thrice, ‘Glory…’ and then the first sessional hymn; ‘Both now…’ and the second.
  • At the end of Ode Six, the bishop says ‘Lord, have mercy’ thrice, then the choir sings the kondak.
  • At the end of Ode Nine the choir sings ‘It is truly meet…’, then the Bishop says ‘Lord, have mercy’ thrice and reads the exapostilarion (or in some places, the choir sings this). The choir then sings the stichera.
  • After the Deacon’s litany for the blessing of the oil, the Bishop steps forward to the table and reads the prayer of blessing, signing the oil with his hand; he then combines the oil and wine in the central vessel and returns to the cathedra.
  • After the singing of the troparia, the seven sets of readings begin. In our customary practice, the Bishop and all clergy remove their headgear at this point and leave it off for the remainder of the service (to avoid it coming off-and-on-again repeatedly for each reading). For each set of readings the following takes place:
    • An appointed Reader, or Deacon, approaches the Bishop with the Apostle Book for a blessing, then stands to the right (south) side of the small table to proclaim the prokeimenon and Apostle.
    • The Bishop and all priests sit during the reading of the Apostle, while another Deacon censes the Gospel book, the iconostasis, the clergy and the people.
    • Following the Apostle, as the Reader proclaims the Alleluia, the Deacon takes the Gospel book from the central analoy and brings it to the Bishop, opening it to the appropriate reading (thusly for the first reading; for the second reading he takes it to the senior-most Priest, for the third reading to the second Priest, etc., such that the seven Gospels are distributed amongst the Bishop and six officiating Priests).
    • After the Gospel, the Deacon returns the book to the analoy and then a second Deacon (if there is one) intones the little litany. The Deacon extinguishes one of the seven candles surrounding the oil.
    • The Deacon then introduces the prayer for the blessing of the oil that is associated with that Gospel reading, and the Bishop reads it from his cathedra, or the priest from his place (the cleric who read the Gospel reading is the same who reads the prayer that follows it).
  • The above is done for each of the seven Apostle and Gospel readings, each time another of the seven candles around the oil being extinguished such that after the final reading they are all extinguished (at which point the candles in the Clergy’s hands are also extinguished and taken away).
  • The anointing of the faithful expressly does not take place after each Gospel and prayer, as is the case with the Mystery of Unction when it is performed for an individual sick person at the bedside (and is so indicated in the Trebnik). In the present rite of ‘general’ Unction, the anointings take place at the end of the service, and only then (see below).
  • Following the seventh Gospel reading and its associated prayer, the Deacon introduces the Bishop’s concluding prayer with ‘Let us pray to the Lord’ (this is not printed in the volume mentioned above; it is an error of the printing).
  • After this prayer, the two senior most priests take the Gospel book from the analoy to the cathedra, where they open it; then, together with the other four priests, the Gospel is held open with its pages downwards, facing the people, with a hand of each priest on the book. The people prostrate themselves fully. The Gospel is held to the west of the Bishop, who himself faces that direction, standing slightly behind it; the Bishop does not place his hand on the Gospel book while he reads the prayer of absolution.
  • After the Dismissal, the Bishop asks forgiveness and makes a prostration before all the Clergy and Faithful, who in turn make a prostration before him (with the words ‘Bless me, holy Master and holy fathers, and forgive me a sinner’).
  • The Bishop and Clergy then move to the central table, where the Bishop distributes the blessed oil and wine into seven smaller receptacles, one of which is given to each of the Priests, and one he retains for himself. A cotton swab is distributed with each, and a small paper towel or napkin (burnable) should also be given to each cleric, as the vessels with oil can become slippery as the anointing progress. (Important note: the anointing brush that is used for the routine anointing of the faithful with blessed oil during Vigils must not be used in the administration of Holy Unction.)
  • The anointing then takes place in the following manner:
    • The Clergy are anointed first. The Bishop stands at the foot of the amvon, and is anointed by each of the Priests in succession, from senior to junior. Each of these approaches the Bishop and anoints his brows, nostrils, cheeks (ears), lips, breast (neck) and both sides of each hand. Following this, the Bishop then anoints the priest in the same way, and then the two exchange the kiss of peace and the Priest kisses the Bishop’s hand. He then moves to the right (north) of the Bishop, and the second priest approaches the Bishop to go through the same process; when complete, the second Priest moves to the first and anoints him, then is anointed by him, while the third approaches the Bishop — and thus until each priest has anointed and been anointed by each of the others, ending in a row that extends to the right of the Bishop.
    • The Faithful begin to be anointed only after the anointing of all the Clergy is fully complete. There is the perennial temptation to begin anointing the faithful as soon as the Bishop has anointed the final priest, but this ends up causing a ‘traffic jam’ as it takes longer for the Priests to anoint each other, since they do this mutually, than for the approaching Faithful. It is best to wait until the anointing of the Clergy is entirely finished, and then bring forward the first of the Faithful, who go first to the Bishop and then to each of the Priests in turn, being anointed in the same manner as indicated for the Clergy, above.
    • Amongst the Faithful, first should come the Subdeacons, Readers and Altar servers, by rank. It is our practice for all these to remove their sticharia (if having served during the readings); Subdeacons and Readers wear their cassocks. Any non-serving Priests or Deacons in the temple should come first of all, also wearing no vestments but only their cassocks and ryassas.

Additionally, the following general notes should be taken into account when the service of General Unction is performed:

  • As the service is intentionally a coming-together of the whole community, when it is served in a specific church, the clergy of all nearby parishes must attend and participate in the service there — this includes, as an expectation and obedience, all Priests, Deacons, Subdeacons and Readers of our own parishes within a reasonable commute; and, with the Bishop’s blessing, may include also the clergy of nearby parishes of other Orthodox jurisdictions.
  • Unction is a Mystery (Sacrament) of the Church, and therefore is administered only to Orthodox Christians.
  • All members of the parish must strive to take part in the service. All must prepare by making their confession beforehand. It is not permitted to receive Unction if one has not preceded it by Confession.
  • As the General Unction service includes a general absolution pronounced in fulfilment of each individual’s personal confession, and thus the service is intrinsically tied to the confession already made, the anointing of the General Unction is administered only to those of confessing age. This is to say, small children who are not already making regular confession before a Priest are not anointed at the General Unction service. Exceptions to this practice, which are sometimes requested by parents who do not fully understand why young children are not anointed here, are inappropriate.
  • Clergy who serve the rite multiple times during Great Lent, together with the Hierarchs, are anointed only once per year; at subsequent or precedent occasions when they serve the rite, they anoint others but are not anointed themselves.
  • Under no circumstances whatever may the remainders of the blessed oil be taken home by the faithful for self-administration, etc. Like all the Holy Mysteries, Unction is administered only by the Clergy in the church or as otherwise appointed.
  • Similarly, faithful who do not attend the whole rite of General Unction in the temple are not anointed with a reserved portion of the blessed oil at a later point. Just as reception of Holy Communion requires that the individual be in the temple for the Divine Liturgy, so the reception of this anointing requires that the individual be in the temple for the rite of General Unction. Should an individual be ill and require anointing, who was not present at the service, the normal rite of Unction can be served for them by the Priest at any time.
  • The natural fulfilment of this Mystery is the confessed and anointed individual’s reception of the Lord’s precious Body and Blood. For this reason, all those who have received anointing are expected to make due preparation and receive Holy Communion at the next service of the Divine Liturgy in the Church. In parishes where this is possible the next morning, this is the best approach.
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