Biblical authors (and other ancient Christians) have a habit of referring to the mysteries of the Christian faith by means of euphemism or code words. The Church began as a persecuted faith whose members were not always inclined to blab about their holiest rites and sacraments in a way that was completely transparent to the outsider. Also, like any society of like-minded people, the early Church tended to create its own jargon known to the initiate but not instantly transparent to the outsider. This was a survival strategy.
So, for instance, when Paul tells the Ephesians, “In him you also, who have heard the word of truth, the Gospel of your salvation, and have believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, which is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory,” he is referring to the sacrament of confirmation. The dead giveaway is Paul’s use of the code word “sealed.”
A seal was the symbol of a person, often a royal person or other dignitary. Seals marked the fact that the messenger carried the authority of the one sending the message. They also attested ownership. Soldiers bore the seal of their leader and slaves the seal of their master. Seals authenticated documents and, now and then, marked them as secret and only lawful to open by one approved by the owner of the seal.
Jesus described himself as marked with his Father’s seal, and his disciple John likewise makes use of the imagery of seals when he describes a great scroll in heaven with seven seals (Revelation 5) that only the Lamb who has been slain can open. His point is that the Lamb, having authority from God, has authority to break the seals on the Book of Covenant History. Seven is the number of “covenant” in Hebraic thought, since to swear an oath is to make a covenant and, in Hebrew, to swear an oath is literally to “seven” yourself.
Interestingly, the Latin word for “oath” is sacramentum. This means that every celebration of the sacraments is a renewal of the covenant between God and man in Christ.
Some sacraments (like Eucharist and reconciliation) are administered many times. But confirmation, like baptism, is celebrated only once. Why? Because of what these sacraments do: namely, imprint a “character” or “mark” on the soul. (See Nos. 1304 and 1305 in the Catechism.)
The image of the “mark” is (like so much in our faith) taken from the Old Testament, where the Prophet Ezekiel has a vision of those whom God saves receiving a “mark” that spares them from destruction (as in the first Passover). The mark is literally the letter “taw,” which looks like an X in ancient Phoenician. The point is that, in being confirmed you are, so to speak, taking up your cross as an adult and beginning the work of mission: Now you have the supernatural grace of God to do it. You bear the same “seal” on your soul that Christ bore on his. You are graced with both adult gifts and adult responsibilities. In baptism, you become a child of God. But in confirmation, you become a friend and even a herald of God.
For this reason, St. Thomas teaches that confirmation “deputes” us. Once confirmed, we are no longer merely disciples, but apostles granted (as we read in No. 1303 of the Catechism) a “special strength of the Holy Spirit to spread and defend the faith by word and action as true witnesses of Christ, to confess the name of Christ boldly, and never to be ashamed of the cross.”
Mark Shea is content editor of