Sometimes words aren—t enough. Sometimes it—s
not enough just to tell your mom, "I—m sorry." It
may take a hug as well. Sometimes it—s not enough to say, Thank
you or I love you.
You might give a gift. Such a special gift can
become more than just the object given. It can become a reminder
of the one who gave the gift. It can become even more than a
reminder: It can become a symbol. It can evoke the presence
of the giver, the occasion when it was given, the feelings that
came with the gift.
Sacraments are like that, too. Sacramental symbols
can say more than words alone because, while words speak to
our mind, symbols speak to our whole body.
Words may be able to explain what happens at Confirmation
and what it means to be confirmed. But we really don—t know
what Confirmation is until we experience the ritual symbols
of the sacrament. In this Youth Update we will examine
the principal symbols of the Sacrament of Confirmation.
The primary symbol of Confirmation is the community
itself. Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist are sacraments of
initiation, initiation into a community.
The community that gathers to celebrate your Confirmation
is not there merely to watch; it is the community into which
you are being initiated. The community is the sign of Christ—s
presence for you.
Every Confirmation begins with Baptism. This is
true whether the Baptism was celebrated only a few moments before
Confirmation (as in many Eastern rites and in our Rite of Christian
Initiation of Adults), whether the Baptism was celebrated six
years before (as in those dioceses where Confirmation is celebrated
before first holy Communion), 14 years before Confirmation,
or even 50 years before Confirmation.
Confirmation complements the symbols of Baptism.
Confirmation means all that Baptism means.
The historical origins of the symbols of Confirmation
are many and diverse. One source of the rituals for the Sacrament
of Confirmation can be found in the bathing customs of the Roman
Empire. After a bath, Romans applied bath oil.
In our times, when you take a shower, you wash
up and dry off. In Roman times, oil was a part of the bathing
ritual. A bath included both water and oil.
Today, if a friend asked you to go to a movie
and you said, "Sure. But don—t come by until 6 p.m. because
I want to take a shower first," I suspect that by shower
you include not only the washing up but also the drying off.
Drying off is understood to be part of the total shower. In
the same way, the early Church saw Confirmation as a part of
the Baptism experience.
The water ritual (Baptism) came to mean the washing
away of sin, and the oil ritual (Confirmation) was interpreted
to mean the sweet fragrance of God—s presence: sanctifying grace.
We know that sin cannot be removed except by grace
just as, for example, a vacuum cannot be removed from a container
without replacing it (the emptiness) with something. The two
In the same way God—s grace fills us with redemption
and salvation. This grace, this presence of God in us, is the
Holy Spirit. Confirmation is the Sacrament of the Holy Spirit.
What memories do you have of oil being applied
to your body? I remember my mother rubbing Vick—s Vapo-Rub on
my chest when I was little and had a cold.
I remember the sensation of applying suntan lotion
and lying on the beach in the Florida sun. And I remember the
soothing ointment a doctor applied to my shoulder after a sports
injury. (Also, I like my popcorn "anointed" with butter.)
What are your memories of anointing?
Anointing can mean many things. From ancient times,
oil has been a symbol of strength, healing and agility. For
Jews, our ancestors in the faith, oil is the sign of God appointing
someone to be a priest, prophet and king.
Many Jews look forward to the time when a very
special anointed one, a Hebrew messiah, will come to announce
God—s reign. The Hebrew word messiah means "anointed."
It—s a strong and important word.
Christians believe that Jesus of Nazareth was
this anointed one. Our Christian Scriptures were written in
the Greek language and "the Anointed One" is translated
as "Christ" in Greek. Some of us are so used to speaking
of "Jesus Christ" that "Christ" almost seems
like Jesus— last name. We forget that it means Jesus, the Anointed
One, the Messiah.
As "Christ" means "anointed,"
we call ourselves "Christians" because we are the
anointed ones, the "Oiled People," so to speak. The
Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist initiate us
into that "oiled" community, the community anointed
to continue the vocation of the Messiah, the Christ.
From ancient times, to impose hands on someone
or to extend one—s hand over the person—s head was the sign
of calling down the Holy Spirit. All seven sacraments employ
this symbol. We call the prayer which accompanies the imposition
of hands an epiclesis, which is an invocation.
At Baptism, the priest lays his hand on those
to be baptized and marks them with the sign of the cross. In
the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the priest lays his hands on
the head of the penitent and proclaims the words of absolution.
During the Anointing of the Sick, the priest imposes hands on
the person to be anointed.
In the Sacrament of Holy Orders, the bishop imposes
hands on the one to be ordained priest. During the Sacrament
of Matrimony (Catholic marriage), the presider extends hands
over the couple who have pronounced their wedding vows and calls
the Holy Spirit upon them so that they may remain faithful in
the marriage covenant.
In the Sacrament of Eucharist, the priest invokes
the Holy Spirit upon the gifts, extends his hands over the bread
and wine and prays that the Holy Spirit change them into the
Body and Blood of Christ so that we who receive them may be
changed into that Body.
In Confirmation, the presider places his hand
on the head of each one to be confirmed and prays that the Holy
Spirit descend upon them. You will hear this prayer: "All
powerful God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, by water and
the Holy Spirit you freed your sons and daughters from sin and
gave them new life. Send your Holy Spirit upon them to be their
Helper and Guide. Give them the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of right judgment and courage, the spirit of knowledge
and reverence. Fill them with the spirit of wonder and awe in
your presence" (Rite of Confirmation, #25).
This prayer asks for the graces which we have
come to call the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. The number
seven is itself a symbol of completeness, of boldness, of abundance.
When we say that there are seven sacraments, we mean more than
their number is one plus six. Seven sacraments implies the abundance
of God—s love for us and the all-sufficient nature of grace.
The words used in the rite are another symbol
of Confirmation. The words of the ceremony, the readings from
Scripture, the homily, the invitation of the presider, the prayer
for the sevenfold Spirit: All of these can help us learn the
meaning of the sacrament.
When you are anointed, the presider first says
your name and then says, "Be sealed with the gift of the
Holy Spirit." Think about the significance of each of these
Your name: What does it mean to be called by name?
In Confirmation we hear again the name we were given in Baptism.
Confirmation begins with Baptism. (Some people take a new name
at Confirmation in order to have an additional heavenly patron.)
Seal: This word has a rich meaning in our religion.
In earlier times a document was shown to be authentic by the
author putting his seal on the document (often with a signet
ring) in a spot of hot wax. This distinctive mark or seal was
like the person—s signature. In Confirmation we receive God—s
mark, God—s seal. God permanently and eternally seals us as
God—s Anointed Ones.
We receive the Sacrament of Confirmation only
once. What happens to us in Confirmation so conforms us to Christ
that the sacrament can never be repeated. We speak of this special
conformity to Christ as the sacramental character of Confirmation.
Gift: This is a key word in the Sacrament of Confirmation.
It reminds us that we are celebrating God—s work. Sometimes
we prepare for Confirmation by years of study and service and
it may seem that Confirmation is a reward, something we have
But Confirmation is not our work. It is God—s
gift. And what is that gift? The Holy Spirit is God—s first
gift to those who believe.
When you think of the word "spirit,"
what comes to mind? School spirit? Team spirit? When we speak
of "team spirit," for example, we are referring to
something which the members of the team possess and also something
that is "beyond" the individual members. It is something
that they all share, something that energizes them, something
that gives them a common goal and vision.
That is what God—s Spirit does to us. The Holy
Spirit is God—s breath in us. God—s breath gives our bodies
a special (divine) life, energy and enthusiasm. The Spirit makes
us not only like the members of a team, but also makes us much
more. We become the members of one body, Christ—s body. The
Holy Spirit unites us in the Body of Christ so that, with him,
we can call God our Father, actually "Abba," which
is more like daddy. It is this Holy Spirit that gives
us our identity, that tells us who we are: the Body of Christ.
St. Paul uses this analogy with the human body
to describe our relation with Christ. St. John uses a different
analogy, that of a vine and its branches. At the Last Supper
Jesus says to the disciples, "I am the vine, you are the
branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much
fruit, because without me you can do nothing" (John 15:5).
In this analogy, the Holy Spirit can be compared to the sap
of the plant, giving life to both vine and branches.
6. The Minister
Liturgical celebrations are the prayer of the
Body of Christ, head and members. Sacraments are the prayer
of Christ and the prayer of the Church. When we celebrate the
sacraments, there is always someone who leads the prayer, a
minister who speaks in the name of us all. In the early Church,
this ministry of leadership was gradually assumed by the one
whom we now call a bishop. The bishop was the one who presided
at Confirmation, for the bishop was the one who presided at
all the sacraments. As the Church grew, the bishop—s assistants,
then called presbyters (we would call them priests), began to
preside at many liturgical functions. In your parish, it is
probably the priest whom you ordinarily see leading the prayers
at Mass and the other sacraments.
Today the minister of Confirmation (for those
Catholics who were baptized as infants) is ordinarily the bishop.
In some dioceses the bishop has delegated the pastor of the
parish or another priest to confirm. When you are confirmed
by the pastor of your parish, this symbol reminds us of the
unity of the Sacraments of Initiation: We see the same minister
leading us at Baptisms, Confirmation and celebrations of the
Eucharist. When the bishop is the minister of Confirmation,
this symbol reminds us that the bishop is the original minister
of all the sacraments. The bishop presiding is also a symbol
of the fact that we are initiated into a Church which is much
larger than our parish.
The final and most important symbol of Confirmation
is Eucharist. Eucharist is the fullness of Confirmation and
the completion of Christian initiation. In Baptism our sins
are washed away; in Confirmation we are filled with the Holy
This Spirit empowers us to continue Christ—s messianic
(anointed) vocation. The life of Christ was first and foremost
a life praising God.
Our praise of God culminates in the Eucharist.
The Eucharist is the repeatable part of Confirmation. In each
Eucharist the Holy Spirit comes upon us anew to strengthen us
At the Eucharist we ask God to send the Spirit
upon our gifts of bread and wine to change them into the Body
and Blood of Christ in order that we who receive these gifts
from the Father might become the Body of his Son. For example,
in Eucharistic Prayer III we pray over the gifts, "...make
them holy by the power of your Spirit, that they may become
for us the body and blood of your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ....Grant
that we, who are nourished by his body and blood, may be filled
with his Holy Spirit, and become one body, one spirit in Christ."
Filled with Christ—s Spirit and united in his
Body we can fulfill in our lives the command of Christ: Do this
in memory of me. We can live our lives as Christ lived his.
As St. Paul wrote in his second Letter to the Corinthians (5:18),
we continue Christ—s ministry of reconciliation and serve as
agents of healing in this broken world. This is the ministry
of Confirmation; this is the ministry of Christianity.