A Sacrament in Search of a Theology: Confirmation, Part 1
Confirmation 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.
But 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 Christ.
Baptism makes us children of God, but confirmation makes us his friends and gives us the grace to bear witness to him.
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 world.
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.
Mark Shea is the content editor
- October 11-17, 2009