I attended a Holy Unction service with my goddaughter last night. Before the service proper our priest read an article on The Grace of Suffering. An excerpt:
Weakness and sickness wipe away everything superficial in us. We are inwardly purified when we are baptized with tears of suffering. The Lord always visits us there, while we are dry on the inside, truly thirsting for living water and reaching out for Him in what we know, deeply and seriously.
He also told us about various responses he has seen in people who were healed from their sicknesses, and said that usually if we are relieved of one form of suffering, it is for further suffering.
It was a long service, including psalms, hymns, prayers, and seven anointings with oil, each preceded by an epistle reading and a Gospel reading. Before each Gospel reading a candle was lit, which helped us keep track of where we were in the service. Seven times the ill and afflicted lined up to be anointed on their forehead, cheeks, lips, chest, and hands.
I was a bit scattered in mind and heart and didn’t feel able to participate with as much attention as I’d have liked, but it was a great blessing nonetheless to help in little practical ways and by praying along. Having my mind washed by the Word, and being in the church with so many repentant hearts singing, “Hearken unto me, O Master, Hearken unto me, O Holy One….” was soothing to my own soul.
Here is an excerpt from another article about this sacrament:
The express purpose of the sacrament of holy unction is healing and forgiveness. Since it is not always the will of God that there should be physical healing, the prayer of Christ that God’s will be done always remains as the proper context of the sacrament. In addition, it is the clear intention of the sacrament that through the anointing of the sick body the sufferings of the person should be sanctified and united to the sufferings of Christ. In this way, the wounds of the flesh are consecrated, and strength is given that the suffering of the diseased person may not be unto the death of his soul, but for eternal salvation in the resurrection and life of the Kingdom of God.
It is indeed the case that death inevitably comes to man. All must die, even those who in this life are given a reprieve through healing in order to have more time on the earth. Thus, the healing of the sick is not itself a final goal, but is merely “instrumental” in that it is given by God as a sign of his mercy and as a grace for the further opportunity of man to live for him and for others in the life of this world.