6th Sunday of Easter: Sts. Peter and John and Confirmation

SCRIPTURES & ART: Today’s First Reading is depicted in a 16th-century painting by Giorgio Vasari.

Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), “Apostles Peter and John Blessing the People of Samaria”
Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), “Apostles Peter and John Blessing the People of Samaria” (photo: Public Domain)

As mentioned last week, the Gospels of these latter weeks of Eastertide, typically taken from the Jesus’ Last Supper Farewell Discourse in John, typically operate at a level of theological abstraction not readily lending themselves to representation in art. So, as last week, we’ll comment artistically on the First Reading, this week speaking of Peter and John “laying hands” on the people of Samaria to give them the gift of the Holy Spirit. But, first, the Gospel.

Jesus continues to prepare his Apostles for his departure, originally by his Passion and Death and, as applied by today’s Gospel, to his imminent Ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. He assures them they will not be orphaned. At his Ascension, he will promise “I am with you always, until the end of the world” (Matthew 28:20). He’s already made good on that promise, as the two disciples on the road to Emmaus learned in the Gospel three weeks ago, through his Real Presence in the Eucharist. But he also intends to remain with them through his Spirit, the Holy Spirit of Truth, who will be given to them as a gift at Pentecost and us in Confirmation.

Jesus concludes today’s Gospel with the acid test that proves whether one is in him and knows him: “Whoever has my Commandments and observes them is the one who loves me” (John 14:20). That test is repeated throughout Johannine literature: “Whoever says, ‘I know him,’ but does not keep without keeping his Commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (I John 2:4). Indeed, the same point is made in the rest of John 14, just beyond where today’s Gospel closes. In verses 23-24, answering a question from Jude Thaddeus, Jesus makes clear: “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him and we will come and make our dwelling in him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; yet the word you hear is not mine but that of the Father who sent me.”

I emphasize this test because, so far in various “listening sessions” of the upcoming Synod on Synodality, we have heard (and are likely to hear in the future) claims that the “Spirit” is “inspiring” and “leading” the Church in ways that previously he taught to be sinful. St. Paul warns us to “test everything; retain what is good. Refrain from every kind of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22). But that test criterion is not something ambiguous or amorphous. Jesus spells it out clearly in today’s Gospel and John is blunt about it: “The way we may be sure we know him is to keep his commandments” (1 John 2:3), inspired and taught by the Spirit of Truth who does not contradict himself. Be faithful to what you have received.

In today’s First Reading, we have some of the earliest evidence of the sacrament of Confirmation. How Baptism and Confirmation differentiated from each other was a historical process: the fact that the Eastern Church (including Byzantine Catholics) still administer Baptism and Confirmation together in infancy while Latin Catholics have temporally separated them points to that history. That Baptism and Confirmation are different is evident in today’s First Reading. Philip (presumably the newly ordained deacon?) visited Samaria, evangelized them and baptized them. Peter and John follow because the Samaritan Christians had “only been baptized” (emphasis mine) but had not yet received the Holy Spirit. Peter and John “laid hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit.”

Some observations:

  • No sacrament takes place without the action of the Holy Spirit, which is why to say the Samaritan Christians had “only” been baptized seems understated by standards of today’s sacramentology. 
  • On the other hand, it is clear from the text that Baptism and the fulness of the gift of the Holy Spirit are two different things, and the latter requires a separate and distinct action (imposition of hands and prayer).
  • Note that the Church is already reaching out beyond Israel. Samaria, though not far from Jerusalem, was religiously worlds away, because Jews considered the “Bad Samaritans” adherents of a syncretistic cult that admixed pagan elements to Judaism and had nothing to do with them. (Remember the surprise of the Samaritan Woman that Jesus the Jew spoke with her?) 

Many homilists on Pentecost, in two weeks, will speak of the Solemnity as “the birthday of the Church,” and that’s true. But it’s also the Confirmation of the disciples assembled in that Upper Room. 

Last year, Michaël Gasparoni and Vincent Gourdon published a book on Confirmation whose title speaks volumes: Le sacrement oublié [The Forgotten Sacrament]. How many Catholics ever think about, or perhaps even remember, their Confirmation? 

How often, instead of becoming what it is — the sacrament of valiant membership in the Church — it becomes the sacrament of exit, from catechism, even from regular Church attendance and practice? At least once upon a time, that exodus might last until it was time for Matrimony, but with the conflation of that sacrament with a thousand-and-one “lifestyle” choices and the religious “None-ing” of young people, Confirmation may mark a long haul void in some young people’s sacramental lives until maybe their child’s Baptism. Isn’t that a reason why we should stop forgetting it and start talking about it more seriously with our young people? That, of course, raises all sorts of other issues, including the permanence of the Baptismal commitment and the purpose of freedom in service of the good, not of itself. All that says is that we need the gift and the robur — the “strength” — of our Confirmation even more. It’s on offer, since the first Pentecost. Just ask the Samaritans.

Today’s First Reading is depicted in a 16th-century painting by Giorgio Vasari. Peter (bearded and older, in his usual gold colored clothes) and John (young) lay hands on an assembled group of Samaritans. The Holy Spirit hovers over the entire scene. The most distinct and strongest colors belong to the two Apostles and to those being confirmed: everybody else bleaches out in greyish hues. It’s telling that the confirmandi appear to acquire a rosy hue (red is the color of the Holy Spirit). All their flesh, in comparison to others in the painting, is ruddier. Note the pious expectation of the two kneeling, about to have hands laid upon them by Peter and John, and contrast it to the older man in the foreground whose facial expression and bodily posture indicates something he had hitherto not experienced in terms of the Spirit who “renews the face of the earth.” They are transformed. They are enlivened “to the full.”

Vasari was a Renaissance painter influenced by the mannerism of Raphael. He was also a successful architect. He is perhaps today remembered for his contribution to art history, Le Vite de' più eccellenti pittori, scultori, ed architettori [The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects], a compendium of the stars of Renaissance art in Italy.

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