What is the sacrament of Confirmation? What does it do? When Bishop Curtis confirmed me many years ago, I don’t think I would have been able to give a good answer to those questions. I knew Confirmation had something to do with the Holy Spirit. Even better, it meant you got presents AND you didn’t have to go to religious education classes anymore. I remember hearing it described as the Catholic equivalent of a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, a rite of passage that accords one the status of an adult in the Jewish community. But that’s not really what Confirmation is, especially if you consider the fact that Byzantine Catholics receive Confirmation (and Eucharist) as infants – immediately following their Baptism. Along with Baptism and Eucharist, Confirmation is one of the three “sacraments of initiation,” which means that as soon as you receive those three sacraments you are a fully-initiated member of the Church, even if you’re not old enough to talk.
Even though in our contemporary practice we receive Confirmation as our fourth sacrament, I decided this reflection should follow the reflection on Baptism since the two sacraments are so closely connected. Valid reception of the sacrament of Confirmation requires the following: 1) a baptized person, 2) a bishop (or a priest under certain circumstances), 3) a specially-blessed fragrant oil called Chrism. As the bishop administers the oil on the head of the person to be confirmed, he says: “Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
In the reflection on Baptism, we saw how the passage of the Israelites through the Red Sea foreshadowed both Christ’s passage through death and His resurrection, as well as our Baptism. Likewise, Confirmation is foreshadowed in the Old Testament, where it was common practice to anoint kings and priests with fragrant oil when they received their office. As time went on, the Jewish people lived in anticipation of the coming of One who would be their Savior, who would be both priest and king. They called Him the Messiah, which is translated “Christos” in Greek, and means “the Anointed One.” As Christians, we profess faith in Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ, God Incarnate, who as the Anointed One reigns forever as King and High Priest.
If Jesus is the Christ, when was He anointed? There are episodes in the gospels where Our Lord receives an anointing from Mary of Bethany and from an unnamed sinful woman. In two of the accounts, she anoints His head with oil. In two others, she anoints His feet. Our Lord speaks of the anointings as a good thing, a preparation for His burial. But the anointing of Christ by the Holy Spirit, that which fulfilled the Old Testament anointings and which foreshadows our reception of the sacrament of Confirmation, takes place at Christ’s baptism in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. The passage tells us that when Jesus emerged from the waters of the river, “behold, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him” (Mt 3:16; cf: Mk 1:10; Lk 3:22; Jn 1:32).
It’s important to remember that Our Lord wasn’t baptized for the same reason that we’re baptized. As the Incarnate Lord, He did not have Original Sin. While the waters of baptism serve to sanctify us, Jesus’ baptism had the effect of sanctifying the waters of baptism, establishing them as the means by which we receive a share in His death and resurrection. The anointing of Confirmation configures us to Christ anointed by the Holy Spirit. As the great theologian Jean Danielou explains it: “The Baptism of Christ, followed by the descent of the Spirit, is thus seen to be a prefiguration of His death followed by His royal enthronement, of which the Christian in turn partakes by means of the two sacraments of water and of the anointing.” Through Baptism, we die and rise with Christ. Through Confirmation we reign with Him.
Confirmation is not the first time we receive the Holy Spirit – that takes place at Baptism. Danielou explains: “In Confirmation there takes place a new outpouring of the Spirit having for its object to bring to perfection the spiritual energies called forth in the soul by Baptism.” These “energies” are the 7 Gifts of the Holy Spirit: Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Knowledge, Fortitude, Piety, and Fear of the Lord. Confirmation perfects and strengthens what is first received at Baptism.
In the scene of Jesus’ anointing by the woman in Bethany, the gospel tells us that when she poured the oil over the head of Christ the sweet fragrance of it filled the room. The rich fragrance of the oil of Chrism, through which we receive the sacrament of Confirmation is a reminder to us that our lives as members of the Church, sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit, are to fill the earth with the sweet fragrance of Christian charity and set the world ablaze with the love of the Anointed One.