There are two traditions — East and West — when it comes to the sacrament of confirmation. Together they show how doctrine can develop and unfold within the Church much as the branches on the mustard plant can develop from the seed in ways that, while different for different branches, retain the seed’s mustardiness.
Originally, the norm in the Church (with a few exceptions such as we noted with the Samaritans last week) was to administer the sacraments of baptism and confirmation as a sort of “double sacrament” (to quote St. Cyprian).
With small Christian communities, this was doable because one bishop could handle the workload. But as the Church continued to grow, logistical problems began to impinge on how the sacrament was administered.
As you will recall, when the Samaritans received the Gospel in Acts 8, the believers who had borne witness to them felt free to baptize them but, curiously, not to confirm them. Instead, what happened was the apostles at the Jerusalem Mother Church took the trouble to send, not just anybody, but Peter and John, who laid their hands on the newly baptized Samaritans, and “they received the Holy Spirit” (Acts 8:14-17).
Why go to all this trouble of sending the apostles themselves?
Because, led by the Spirit, the apostles chose to link confirmation directly to the apostolic office — and, therefore, with the bishop.
But, over the centuries, as infant baptisms multiplied, parishes became more remote and far flung, and sheer numbers prevented the bishop from being present at all baptismal celebrations, this became impossible. A choice had to be made: Either confirmation could be celebrated separately from baptism or the baptizer could be authorized to confirm when the bishop wasn’t around.
The West opted to separate the two sacraments in the case of infants, administering confirmation much later (generally in adolescence).
The East has kept them together, but insisted that the priest who confirms only does so with the oil consecrated by a bishop.
The West follows the Eastern model in the case of adult converts, with the priest baptizing and then immediately confirming the new Catholic.
Because of the Church’s principle of lex orandi, lex credendi (the way we worship is the way we believe) these two different practices have had the salutary effect of emphasizing two different aspects of the sacrament. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us (No. 1292):
“The practice of the Eastern Churches gives greater emphasis to the unity of Christian initiation. That of the Latin Church more clearly expresses the communion of the new Christian with the bishop as guarantor and servant of the unity, catholicity and apostolicity of his Church, and hence the connection with the apostolic origins of Christ’s Church.”
Every sacrament has a particular “matter” that constitutes the visible sign showing us what the sacrament does. Water signifies washing, death, new life and quenching of thirst, so it is the fitting matter for baptism, which does all these things. Likewise, bread and wine are the fitting matter for Eucharist since they symbolize perfectly what God, in fact, does for us through that sacrament.
The matter of confirmation is oil, which likewise is the ideal sign for what confirmation does.
Oil is the proper symbol for the superabundance of the Spirit displayed at Pentecost and promised by the prophets. It is associated in the ancient mind with cleansing after a bath (and therefore with baptism), with athletic limberness and with healing (since it was used to dress wounds). The perfumed oils of the ancient Near East smell nice, too, signifying sheer joy. Oil was used to anoint prophets, priests and kings.
No wonder, then, that Jesus is called the Anointed One — and that oil is one of the richest symbols of the Holy Spirit in Scripture.
The essential rite of confirmation is anointing the forehead of the baptized with sacred chrism (in the East other sense organs, as well), together with the laying on of the minister’s hand and the words “Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit” in the Roman rite or “the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit” in the Byzantine rite.
It is an interesting thing that God uses that gesture when he calls us to serve him as men and women and not as children. We do not expect courage, strength or understanding from children.
But we do expect children to grow up.
So when God calls us to take our place in the Kingdom and boldly approach him and the world, he lays his hands on us like a father reassuring his children and reminds us who we are in Christ — sons and daughters of God. Moreover, he not only reminds us who we are — he gives us gifts and strength so that we can literally do what we cannot, on our own, possibly do.
Next issue, we will talk about what this looks like.
Mark Shea is content editor for