How do we understand the meaning of the sacramental ritual of confirmation? In St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, we see vocabulary emerge, describing what happens at Confirmation when the Holy Spirit descends upon the Christian: “But the one who gives us security with you in Christ and who anointed us is God; he has also put his seal upon us and given us the Spirit in our hearts as a first installment” (2 Cor 1:21-22). The words “anointed” and “seal” are used to describe the work of the Holy Spirit upon and in the soul of the individual baptized believer. That’s what the Spirit does: anoints and seals.
The word “anointed” itself contains even more meaning and insight. The Greek verb for anointed, χρίσας, is, of course, similar to the word “Christ” (the phrase in 2 Cor 1:21 actually reads: Χριστόν καί χρίσας). This gives us an even more profound sense of what confirmation does: by the gift of the Holy Spirit we are anointed, or in a sense “Christ-ed.” Remember early Christians saw Christ’s baptism and Spirit-driven desert experience as a pattern of their own experience? This is why. Because the Anointed is the pattern for the anointed.
We find this terminology in other passages of the New Testament, too. For example, in Ephesians we read about believers “sealed with the promised holy Spirit” (Eph 1:13). That’s why, as it says later in Ephesians, believers shouldn’t use foul language so as not to “grieve the holy Spirit of God” by which they were “sealed for the day of redemption” (Eph 4:29-30). That Christians were “sealed” by the Holy Spirit evoked the image of being owned by Christ. Soldiers, for instance, were marked by their generals, then enslaved by their masters. So, for the Holy Spirit to “seal” the believer meant that he or she was owned by the Holy Spirit to be, as Paul said of himself, “a slave of Christ Jesus” (Rom 1:1) — a Lord, certainly, whose yoke is easy and burden light, but who is Lord all the same (Mt 11:30).
Beyond the Scripture, we find the same pattern and vocabulary in the tradition. The Apostolic Tradition — an ancient Church manual from the third century — describes confirmation this way:
“And the bishop shall lay his hand upon them invoking them and saying: ‘O Lord God, Who did count these worthy of deserving the forgiveness of sins by the laver of regeneration, make them worthy to be filled with Your Holy Spirit and send upon them thy grace, that they may serve You according to your will.’ … After this, pouring the consecrated oil and laying his hand on his head, he shall say: ‘I anoint thee in the name of Christ’” (The Apostolic Tradition, No. 21).
Recall that a typical baptismal ceremony in the early Church saw catechumens baptized in the nude (men and women baptized separately). Stepping down into a large font, they were immersed in water three times. Coming out the other side, they were dressed in white robes. Sometimes they were given honey and milk, symbols of entering the Promised Land. And then immediately, the newly baptized would go into another room and there meet the bishop where he would lay hands on the newly baptized and anoint them with chrism, a perfumed oil used at ordinations and coronations, symbolizing the new Christian’s share in the kingship of Christ. St. Cyprian, who lived in North Africa, describes this: “They who are baptized in the Church are brought to the prelates of the Church, and by our prayers and by the imposition of the hand obtain the Holy Spirit, and are perfected with the Lord’s seal” (Letter 73).
We see the same from St. Ambrose; but from him, we learn even more. “For after the font,” he wrote, “it remains for the perfecting to take place.” He too calls confirmation a “spiritual seal.” But he links the gift of the Holy Spirit to the gifts mentioned in Isaiah 11:2-3: “a spirit of wisdom and of understanding, a spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the Lord.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls these the “gifts of the Holy Spirit” (No. 1303). These gifts Isaiah described were interpreted in early Christian tradition to be gifts belonging to Christ, as a prophecy about Jesus. So, when St. Ambrose said that, at confirmation, these gifts were now given to the Christian, he was describing the intimate moral and charismatic union made between believers and the Lord in the Sacrament of Confirmation. The newly baptized now possessed these prophetic and Christ-like gifts. These Messianic gifts are now given to the Christian through the Holy Spirit. Again, the anointed become like the Anointed.
Now, what are the gifts of the Holy Spirit? St. Thomas Aquinas described them perfectly, saying such gifts give the believer an “ardent desire” for virtue and make the person who possesses them hungry for virtue (Summa Theologiae, I-II 69, Answer 3). For example, we all have an innate sense of justice since it’s written into the natural law. If I paid one person $100 and another person $50 for doing the same job, the person who was underpaid would undoubtedly feel the injustice of it and likely complain because, of course, his or her sense of justice is innate. And the person who was paid $100 will also sense the injustice of it too, and he or she may even ask that the other person is paid more, or he or she may share the extra money. Now Aquinas says the gifts of the Holy Spirit make a person desire justice more. That is, the person possessing the gifts of the Spirit would not consent to such iniquity but would passionately want to do something about it. That’s what these gifts do. Everyone has a sense of justice, but the gifts of the Holy Spirit enhance a Christian’s natural moral sense with desire.
And so, biblically speaking, we understand confirmation in terms of being anointed and sealed. These two images give us a sense of the Christological reality of confirmation, how confirmation perfects our union in Christ beginning in baptism. These images and this pattern continued throughout the tradition. They are the basic elements of Catholic theology and the practice of baptism and confirmation. But confirmation is part of the single twofold event of baptism and confirmation, which for much of Christian history was celebrated within a single ceremony. Baptism and confirmation belong to the same spiritual reality, forming us into one Christ. But these eventually became separated as we know today.
Father Joshua J. Whitfield is pastor of St. Rita Catholic Community in Dallas and author of “The Crisis of Bad Preaching” (Ave Maria Press, $17.95) and other books. Read more from the series here.