To: (Multiple email addresses may be specified by separating them with a comma)
BY Mark Shea
has sometimes been called a sacrament in search of a theology. That’s because
many Catholics wonder, “What exactly are we doing this for?” and celebrate it
(if at all) mostly because, well, the Church says to do it and it seems like a
nice rite of passage for teens passing into adulthood.
many of us remain rather fuzzy on why, after receiving the Holy Spirit in
baptism, we somehow need receive him again in confirmation.
A look at the roots of revelation is
a good place to start in approaching the matter. The prophets had promised some
startling (and mysteriously obscure) things to Israel. They promised a messiah
who would be anointed with “the Spirit of the Lord … the spirit of wisdom and
understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the
fear of the Lord” (Isaiah 11:2).
But the promise did not end there.
Joel’s glorious vision of the coming Messianic Age promised, “And it shall come
to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and
your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young
men shall see visions. Even upon the menservants and maidservants in those
days, I will pour out my spirit” (Joel 3:28-29).
This notion of the Spirit being
“poured out” in some superabundant way was an old dream of Israel. Moses had
groaned, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would
put his spirit upon them!” (Numbers 11:29).
But the outpouring of the Spirit
was, during Old Testament times, reserved for a rare few.
However, when the Anointed One came,
he promised that all this was going to change. The Spirit was, through him,
going to be poured out in fullness on the people of God through the sacrament
of baptism — and through something else, as well.
The pattern emerges in the New
Testament. The apostles have been declared “clean” by Jesus in the act of
washing their feet (a gesture that recalls the “washing with water in the word”
that is the sacrament of baptism [John 13:1-11]). Indeed, the risen Jesus
breathes upon them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22), clearly
indicating that they have received baptismal grace. Yet at the Ascension they
are told to wait for a mysterious gift from God: “You shall receive power when
the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem
and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
Something further is needed, some
fresh outpouring of the Spirit, distinct from the grace of baptism, that will
enable them to do what mere elation at the Resurrection could not.
That something was Pentecost, in
which the Spirit was indeed poured out upon all who called upon the Anointed
One at the dawn of the Messianic Age (see Acts 2). They see this outpouring of
the Spirit after baptism as the fulfillment of prophecy and take it as a norm
for all Christians. That is why “when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that
Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, who
came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit; for it
had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name
of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid their hands on them, and they received the
Holy Spirit” (Acts 8:14-17).
In short, guided by that Spirit whom
Jesus promised would lead them into all truth, the apostles established a
second sacrament of initiation — confirmation — through which God pours out the
fullness of the Holy Spirit on the believer and empowers him with the Spirit’s
gifts for the work of mission in the world and the task of becoming mature in
Baptism makes us children of God,
but confirmation makes us his friends and gives us the grace to bear witness to
Confirmation is celebrated with a
few minor differences in the Eastern and Western Churches, but in both it is
the sacrament of mature empowerment, of friendship with God and of sending.
It empowers us to leave the nursery
and go out into the world as adults speaking the friendship of God to the
And it gifts us to do this, not in
our own strength, but with the strength and wisdom of God himself. That’s
because only the Holy Spirit can win the world to Christ, just as only he can
make us into the image and likeness of Christ.
How does that work?
In upcoming issues, we will look at
this sacrament, and the gifts God gives us through it, and find out.
Shea is the content editor