Monday, May 06, 2019

The Marvels of the Sacrament of Confirmation

As if responding to the surge of new life in nature and the resplendent outpouring of supernatural life in the celebration of the Easter mysteries, the season of Spring each year brings with it a rising tide of sacramental grace: first holy communions, confirmations, weddings, and priestly ordinations.

In the West, Confirmation is a sacrament about which many disputes have taken place in recent years, primarily about the proper order in which to give the “sacraments of initiation,” operating on the assumption (criticized by our Eastern brethren) that they are to be staggered over the course of childhood: baptism to begin the spiritual life, confirmation to strengthen it, and the Holy Eucharist to bring it to perfection; or baptism to start life, the Eucharist to nourish it, and confirmation to perfect it for public witness. The staggering of sacraments can be defended, as can both of the aforementioned orders.

However, entering into this debate is not the purpose of this article. Rather, I wish to suggest that our basic problem with “placing” Confirmation is a lack of understanding of the grandeur of the sacrament. We have many resources in the Fathers of the Church and the Schoolmen for reinvigorating our catechesis, preaching, and imagination. Here I shall simply present a number of points for meditation, drawing primarily on Sacred Scripture, to help us appreciate the depth of the mystery into which this great sacrament plunges us.

I. The Holy Spirit is at work from the very beginning of creation.

1. At the creation of the world, the Spirit hovered over the waters, the formless void (Gen. 1:2). This is our life before we know Christ, or before Christ comes into our lives: the human soul is in a state of chaos, a state of sin, until the Spirit brings grace to it and the orderliness of charity.

2. When God created Adam, He breathed into him the breath of life, and “he became a living being” (Gen. 2:7). Such is the Spirit to the Christian: the breath of our breath, the life of our life.

3. After the Flood, Noah sent out a dove. When it no longer returned, this was a sign that the world was now habitable (Gen. 8:8–12). The flood is a symbol of baptism and the dwelling of the dove on the newly washed land is like the indwelling of the Holy Spirit conferred in Confirmation on the baptized.

4. The Jewish feast of Pentecost memorialized the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai. It also became a harvest festival, when the first fruits were offered to God. The gift of the Spirit is the gift of the New Law, the law internal to us rather than external, the inward motivation to love God and neighbor. If we tend this implanted love, we will yield a rich harvest.

5. A prefiguration of Confirmation was found in the anointing of priests, such as Aaron (Ex. 28:41). David and Solomon were anointed with oil for kingship (1 Sam. 16:12, 1 Chr. 29:22). Prophets were full of the Holy Spirit (Ez. 37:14, 39:29, Mic. 3:8). Confirmation truly “confirms” that we are priests in union with Christ the High Priest, prophets in union with the Word made flesh, and kings in union with the Man of Sorrows who, with perfect self-mastery, persevered in justice to the end.

6. Oil was a symbol of joy and strength, health and cleansing (Ps. 23:5, 104:15). It was used by athletes before competition and after bathing, as well as for healing. It was often infused with aromatic herbs and spices. This is still the case: how many countless types of oils, lotions, and scents are sold today to people who want to look, feel, and smell their best? But what of our spiritual good looks, our spiritual vigor and odor? It’s time to take seriously again the old-fashioned idea of “the odor of sanctity.” For indeed, sin stinks to high heaven; St Catherine of Siena could not abide the spiritual stench of sinners. We need the holy oil of gladness and strength if we are to be preserved from corruption.

7. Throughout the Old Testament there were prophecies that a Messiah or Anointed One would come (Isa. 42:1, 61:1, Matt. 3:1). He would be full of the Holy Spirit and preach the gospel to the poor. Psalm 45:7 says that the Messiah would be anointed “above your fellows.” It was also prophesied that the Lord’s Spirit would come on all the people of Israel, which is what Moses had wished for (Num. 11:29, Joel 2:28–29). Confirmation conforms us to the Anointed One of God, lifting us above ourselves. When we act according to this grace, we can conquer our limitations.

8. We can also see a prefiguration of Pentecost and Confirmation in Elijah’s offering on Mt. Carmel (cf. 1 Kgs 18:38). After three barrels of water were poured on the sacrifice (reminiscent of the triune immersion or pouring in baptism), fire from heaven came and consumed it (the outpouring of the grace of the Holy Spirit).

9. In all these cases, we see that God wishes to dwell in His people as in a temple, He wishes to be the life of their souls. Unfortunately the sinfulness of the children of Adam continually throws up obstacles to this plan of adoption. Instead, the anointing seems to arise more as an extraordinary phenomenon (e.g., in certain prophets and kings) than as a regular aspect of the life of Israelites. The natural Son of God, the Anointed One par excellence, must come to make available to Israel and all mankind the grace of the Holy Spirit.

II. All prophecies and types are fulfilled in Christ: He is the Temple where the Holy Spirit dwells.

1. Christ was conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary through the power of the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35). As “the Lord and Giver of Life” (Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed), the Holy Spirit is at work in the creation of Christ’s humanity, just as He is in the creation of the world. Moving over the unformed matter of the Virgin’s womb and fashioning from it the body of a man, separated from the chaos of sin, is the beginning of the New Creation.

2. At the Baptism of Christ (Luke 3:22), the Holy Spirit is seen descending on Him in the form of a dove. Contrary to bad preaching, Jesus does not “receive the Spirit” at this point; He has been anointed in His humanity from the first moment of His existence in the flesh. This is rather the external manifestation to John the Baptist—and to us as well—that Jesus is the Messiah. Through this “resting” of Holy Spirit, He is anointed as priest, prophet, and king, above any other: “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 10:38).

3. Teaching at the synagogue, Christ reads the prophecy about the Messiah from Isaiah: “The Lord has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor.” He then said: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:18–21).

4. On Easter Sunday, Christ appears to His apostles, and breathes on them, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20: 22). This reminds us of the breath of life put into Adam by God.

5. Fifty days after the Resurrection, on the feast of Pentecost, a mighty wind and tongues of flame signify the descent of the Spirit on the apostles (Acts 2:1–4). Once again, the breath of God takes weak material and puts order into it—the ordo caritatis, so that the disciples can love God above all and their neighbor’s salvation as their own. After this, they are no longer fearful, hidden indoors, but able and eager to preach the gospel to all, speaking in the tongues of every people. They are prepared to hand over their lives to death, for “love is strong as death” (cf. Song 8:6). This was the firstfruits of the Gospel preaching, for about 3,000 were added to their number (Acts 2:41). It also signifies that the Spirit is the New Law, and the Old Law is fulfilled and superseded (Rom. 8:2).

6. Later, the Apostles give the Holy Spirit through the “laying on of hands” (Acts 8:14–17). This is the Biblical “proof text” for Confirmation.

III. Through baptism, we are united with Christ; in Confirmation, the Spirit of Sonship, the Spirit of truth, comes to dwell in us in His fullness.

The sacrament of Confirmation completes baptismal graces and is a participation in Christ’s mission and anointing.

1. Just as the Apostles were called upon to “lay on hands,” so the bishop, successor to the Apostles, is the ordinary minister of Confirmation. Even when the bishop delegates authority to simple clergy to confer confirmation, they will be using oil consecrated by the bishop.

2. The graces conferred on us in the sacrament of Confirmation are the same graces that Christ has in His soul to the highest degree.
a. In Christ, divine filiation is natural. We are adopted “sons in the Son” and receive the fullness of the Spirit who cries out “Abba, Father” (Rom. 8:14-17) in us.
b. Confirmation strengthens our union with Christ. The Holy Spirit teaches us all that Christ would have us know (cf. John 14:26).
c. Confirmation prepares us to preach and defend the faith, just as Christ and the Apostles preached (Matt. 10:20, Luke 12:12).
d. Through Confirmation, we receive an increase in the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit that the Prophet Isaiah prophesied would be poured out upon the Messiah: the gifts of wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, fear of the Lord, and piety (Isa. 61:1–2).

3. Through Confirmation, God’s desire to make a permanent dwelling in His children is fulfilled (“the kingdom of heaven is within you,” Luke 17:21), and the prophecy of Joel is realized: “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh” (Joel 2:28).

Does this mean that Christians cannot be holy without Confirmation, or that Confirmation will automatically make Christians holy? The answer to both questions is no. We never deny God’s freedom to sanctify whom He will, as He will, outside of His usual ways; nor do we deny man’s freedom to resist the better way and squander the graces God gives him or would give him. Nevertheless, Confirmation is the regular path to spiritual maturity in Christ, the normal way He has established for achieving the full measure of Christian manhood. It is a great and guaranteed gift of access to the power and gifts of the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity, capable of reproducing in our souls all of the effects attributed to the Spirit of God in the Old and New Testaments. In this way Confirmation is not a “rite of passage” but a bestowal of permanent Christ-likeness in our souls, which equips us to receive all that it demands.

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