In my short career as a priest, I was asked many times to administer “last rites” to a dying individual. What is particularly interesting is that in the Eastern Orthodox Church there are no last rites. Or at least not in the sense people think about them when they are mentioned. The term “Last Rite” is taken from Roman Catholic terminology and it is foreign to our Eastern Orthodox mentality.
Generally speaking, last rites imply a few sacraments that are administered to an individual who is dying. Among them the “oil of the sick” which in the Orthodox Church is known as “Holy Unction” and Holy Communion. In addition to this, some prayers are read either for healing or for the departure from this world. All these prayers and sacraments are present in the Orthodox Church but they are not considered to be the prayer of last rite and something that conclusively prepares someone for death. In the Orthodox Church, every day is our last rite day and every day is preparation for death. Here is how we Orthodox Christians prepare for dying:
As Orthodox Christians we believe that the only fully valid baptism is the baptism in the Eastern Orthodox Church. All other denominations when coming to Orthodoxy have to undergo a certain process in order to convert fully. Baptism is not only our membership ticket to the Orthodox Church but our ticket to heaven. Since every day is a gift from God, everyone who wishes to receive Baptism or Chrismation in the Orthodox Church should not wait and not delay the sacrament.
2. Participation in the Holy Communion
Our baptismal grace, if we do not work on it, will remain passive and inactive if we are not confirming and supporting that grace with the sacrament of Holy Communion which seals every sacrament of the Church. Practices where people receive communion once a year are not just wrong but detrimental for people’s spiritual and physical health. When one does not eat the Body and Blood of Christ regularly and frequently, in the words of St. John Chrysostom, they are exposed to the “Spiritual Wolf” and are an easy target. In order for us to have life after we depart this life, we have to participate in life here and now and do that frequently. There is nothing magical about receiving communion a minute before we die. If we did not participate in the life of the Church it is most certainly beneficial that we receive the sacrament before our death but if we did that all life long and did it regularly, there is no problem if someone does not receive communion before they die. Every Orthodox priest will strive for it! That is for sure! However, if it does not happen, we know that a person who actively participated in the sacraments of the Church and lived the life of faith will find God’s mercy.
3. Learning about your faith
Learning about our faith is not only a pious thing to do but it is life-giving and rewarding. When we, in the Orthodox Church, use terminology that is foreign to us, like “last rites” we are proving that our knowledge of our faith is lacking. Knowledge of faith does not mean only intellectual knowledge. If we are not aware of what God wants from us and what our Holy Tradition says about the matters of faith our faith can be anything but life-giving.
All in all, in the Eastern Orthodox Church, our preparation for death does not start with “the last rites” but starts from the very beginning of our lives. As opposed to waiting for the moment when someone is very sick to offer God to them, Orthodox communities should target individuals who are outside of the Church and explain the urgency of our preparation for death. We should never wait for the last minute or the last rite…..As Saint Augustine said: “Only one was saved on the cross…..one, so that you may have hope, but only one so that you do not hope too much”.