Of the seven Sacraments, probably the most misunderstood among Catholics is confirmation. People routinely mistake confirmation for “Catholic graduation,” or some sort of coming of age ceremony akin to a bar mitzvah. These common misconceptions of confirmation miss the mark, and, consequently, confuse people about what confirmation actually is. In order to fully understand confirmation, we have to back up to see where the roots of confirmation originate from. While the sacrament of confirmation is found in Bible passages such as Acts 8:14–18, 9:17, 13:3, 19:6, and Hebrews 6:2, which speak of a laying on of hands and obtaining an anointed seal (2 Corinthians 1:21-22 – the word “commissioned” in Greek literally means “anointed us”) for the purpose of receiving the Holy Spirit, the foundation of confirmation is seen in the Old Testament (OT). These OT clues of confirmation are based on two important aspects of the faith – the Holy Spirit and Pentecost. Confirmation is intrinsically linked to the coming of the Holy Spirit, which took place on the feast day known as Pentecost. It is fitting that the Holy Spirit and confirmation are joined together as both tend to get over-looked. The Holy Spirit is usually the forgotten Person of God in the Holy Trinity and confirmation tends to be the ignored sacrament.
What is Pentecost? While it is known as the birthday of the Church looking at the Old Testament will shed light on Pentecost. Pentecost was originally an Old Testament feast that is still celebrated today. It follows fifty days after the feast of unleavened bread following Passover. The feast of Pentecost was the feast of the spring harvest (see Leviticus 23: 15 -21). Pentecost is not simply associated with agriculture. It is tied to creation. God made the universe, and the universe develops food from the land. Therefore, the agriculture, the fruit of the land, is viewed with cosmic significance. To live off the food of the land is to live off God’s creation.
In the original instructions of Pentecost in Leviticus, the people are called to bring various offerings of wheat, bread, wine, lambs and bulls to God. Therefore, the people of Israel would bring God special sacrifices, the main being the spring grain harvest and wine (notice the Eucharistic theme of bread and wine).
Pentecost was to commemorate that God had blessed the people with a plentiful harvest for their food – their very bodily survival. Therefore, Pentecost is tied to harvest imagery. Going out into the fields, working, harvesting the grains and not just casually consuming the grain but offering a portion to God as a way of thanking him. So, you are giving back to God what he provided for you to show your expression of thanks and love. God then takes your offering and multiplies it for all the people.
Pentecost also has a historical aspect to it in that it is recalling a great event in salvation history that the people were meant to make present again. The historical event of Pentecost is when God came to Moses on Mount Sinai as a glory cloud of smoke and fire. This event was the famous giving of the law of the Ten Commandments (see Exodus 19: 16-20). Incidentally, the Jews believed that the time it took Israel to get out of Egypt after the first Passover and get to Mount Sinai was 50 days. So, the Jews celebrated not just the giving of the law but the descent of the Holy Spirit into their midst through a cloud of fire.
In fact, when John the Baptist introduces Jesus he employs harvest imagery in connection with the descent of fire. As he says, “I baptize you with water for repentance but he who is coming after me is mighty than I who sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Besides being an echo of Mount Sinai, Holy Spirit and fire are also a direct reference to that scene in Acts 2 during Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended through wind and tongues of fire on to the apostles. But John keeps going on in his introduction to Jesus to invoke harvest imagery. “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3: 11-12). Notice that John is describing gathering good wheat at the spring harvest and storing the grain into this great building.
As any gardener or farmer can tell, the process of harvesting is difficult. You work long hard hours of labor and often your crops turn out to be duds that can’t be harvested. So, to get crops that make it the harvest requires much work. Once harvested, your crops are ready for use – to eat for the survival of others. Do not think that Leviticus is simply teaching us to become good farmers and share our food. Often the physical manifestation in the Old Testament is fulfilled by the spiritual manifestation illuminated in the New Testament. Therefore, the “wheat” references by Moses in the OT and John in the NT is meant to communicate that souls are ready for the harvest. And the great building, the granary, is meant to be the Church. Just like valuable wheat was stored in the building, precious souls are stored in the Church. Now, these souls are not meant to sit in idol isolation much like the wheat was not meant to collect dust in the granary. They both are meant to be used to help people. The well-kept wheat needs to feed the body and the well-kept souls need to feed other souls the faith. In fact, what makes them great is that these well-harvested souls are given the task to go-out to grow the harvest of other souls even larger.
Here is the dramatic link that occurs at Confirmation – the souls of the teenagers are ready to be harvested to go out and spread the faith.
Of course, the famous event that demonstrates this Pentecost idea in a concrete way is in the second chapter of Acts of the Apostles. The backdrop of this scene showcases that the disciples were hiding out in the upper room like a bunch of scared cowards for fear that they too would be executed. They were also instructed to teach all people the faith but didn’t have a clue how to do this. However, Jesus reassured them after he left them this mysterious figure known as the Holy Spirit would come and guide them into all truth (see Acts 1: 6-9). As many Jews flocked to celebrate Pentecost this day, it became the same day that the Holy Spirit came to these timid twelve men and transformed them into courageous apostles. It happened as “suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind . . . and there appeared to them tongues as of fire. . . and they were all filled with Holy Spirit” (see Acts 2: 1-21). After the apostles were infused with the Holy Spirit, Peter announced to the crowd the prophecy of Joel. “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh . . . I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.” Observe in this sermon that Peter goes from a trembling coward hiding away to now boldly declaring the teachings of the faith. After this daring speech, Peter delivered 3,000 souls to be baptized and enter into the Church (see Acts 1:41). Not a bad harvest of souls for Peter’s first sermon.
What about these tongues of fire? While tongues of fire represents God’s manifestation to Moses in the burning bush, what is also interesting is that in the ancient Jewish writing, First Enoch, the author describes that when Enoch went up to heaven guess what the temple in heaven was made of? Tongues of fire (see 1 Enoch 14: 8-25). Therefore, ancient Jewish teaching is that the temple in heaven was built of tongues of fire – bright and powerful, unlike anything they can imagine. In fact, the miter, that strange hat the Bishop wears is meant to represent these tongues of fire. To witness a bishop that comes from an unbroken chain of succession from the first apostles wearing the tongues of fire hat on his head all the while anointing the confirmation candidates connects confirmation to the Pentecost scene in a profound way.
Even the ingredients of confirmation draw from the OT background. The rite of confirmation has 3 liturgical ingredients – 1. Anointing, 2. Laying on of hands, and 3. The seal. All three of these aspects originate in the Old Testament. In the OT, the priests, prophets, and kings all received anointing with oil. When Aaron became the high priest what was poured on him? Oil. When David became king what did Samuel pour on David’s forehead? You guessed it, oil. Then, notice it reads that the “Spirit of the Lord came upon David from that day forward” (1 Samual 16: 13). In fact, in the book of Isaiah, the Messiah himself is anointing by the Holy Spirit.
The laying on of hands in the OT is meant to signify that this person was being set apart for death (see Leviticus 24: 13-14, Exodus 29: 1-20,) Now, in the NT the person is not being set apart specifically for physical death but rather a dying of the self. Here, the self dies in that much like Jesus and the apostles you’ll have to experience great angst and attacks against you because you’ll be asserting unpopular teachings when you spread the faith. In other words, people won’t like you because of your faith.
The seal on the forehead is also rooted in the OT. In the OT, the high priest would be sealed on their forehead. (see Exodus 28: 36). In fact, in the book of Ezekiel when the Lord was about to destroy the city of Jerusalem because it had become so corrupt, God sent an angel and told him to place a seal on the foreheads of all the righteous (see Ezekiel 9:4). Therefore, these righteous ones of God would be protected from the destruction of the city. Notice that being sealed here means being set apart and protected in times of great turmoil. The seal you receive at Confirmation does just that.
We can also witness the transformation of the soul within the person. Recall, that prior to the Holy Spirit coming the apostles were timid, scared, and frankly clueless about the faith. However, after tangibly receiving the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, they gained wisdom and began to boldly declare the faith with courageous zeal while in the face of persecution. While such dramatic transformation might not be as visible at confirmation, I often tell these shy teenagers, whether they know it or not, they are receiving the tools to know and share the faith during confirmation (see CCC 1302-1305). The key hinges on whether they are open to receive the Holy Spirit and later whether they are willing to tap into this great treasure they’ve been given. Wouldn’t it be tragic for someone to never once make a withdraw from his rich uncle’s inheritance? In confirmation, do we even know that we’ve received something greater than a million dollar deposit into our bank account? We have, in fact, received the Holy Spirit – the Third Person of the Trinity.
There are more parallels that link the Holy Spirit in the Old and New Testament. The descent of the Holy Spirit in the OT gave Israel the law written on tablets of stone with the finger of God. In the NT Pentecost, God does not give them the law written on tablets of stone. Rather, he is going to write the law on their hearts. But, God if he’s anything, is consistent. So, what is he going to write with? His finger. Notice that in Matthew’s version it reads: “If I cast out demons by the power of the Spirit the kingdom is upon you” (Matthew 12:28). In Luke’s passage, it reads: “If I cast out demons by the finger of God, the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Luke 11: 20). These are two ways of saying the same thing. The finger of God and the Spirit of God are the same agent. Therefore, God is giving them the law with his finger much as he did in the OT, but instead of writing the law on stone, he is writing the law on their hearts through the power of the Holy Spirit (see also Jeremiah ch. 31).
The key move is that once a person receives the Holy Spirit, he or she is not meant to stay in this passive state and merely reflect inward. Rather, one needs to go out to others and spread and defend the faith much like the early apostles did and fulfill Jesus great commission to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations . . . teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28: 19-20). Confirmation has been called the sacrament of evangelization and martyrdom (or apologetics). Evangelization is like the offense and apologetics is like the defense. As any sports expert will tell you all championship teams need to excel in both offense and defense. So it is with the faith.
It might seem humanly impossible to spread and defend the Catholic faith in today’s anti-Catholic cultural landscape. To this, I say, yes, it is humanly impossible. This is precisely why we need God’s Sacrament to help us do it. We do need to metaphorically die to ourselves and to what others might think of the Church’s unpopular teaching. Here, we experience a sort of martyrdom in which we’re willing to be hated by a hostile culture because our teaching sounds too repulsive for this troubled society to hear. Our scene today is reminiscent of the apostles boldly proclaiming the Catholic faith in the face of death. Thankfully, we have the Sacrament of Confirmation to help us get through it.
Therefore, confirmation prepares us for the battle we are in whether we know it or not. The term Paul used in Ephesians chapter 6 is “spiritual warfare.” Unlike a physical battle with swords and spears in which people physically attack each other, spiritual warfare is a clash of ideas that govern how we think. Try as you may, you can’t avoid this clash. Wherever you go you’re constantly hearing opposing views on how to act, how to think, and what is true. Ultimately, how a person lives is represented by some world view they’ve attached themselves to. Therefore, whether you know it or not, you’re in this grand battle of ideas known as spiritual warfare. At the root of these opposing ideas stands the source of these ideas – God’s message vs. the pop culture’s message. These two entities stand in stark contrast and are in battle precisely to communicate their message over the other. This conflict of ideas is much greater than physical war as spiritual warfare is a fight over souls. And thankfully confirmation gives us the essential elements to succeed in this battle.
Just like those in the natural realm of this world who go into military service, they must first go through a basic training process. We call it boot camp. While boot camp does not make one a seasoned soldier that is perfected in combat, it is a necessary step. In boot camp, they receive their training, their battle gear, their weapons, and learn how to use them in the heat of battle. And so it is with the Sacrament of Confirmation. Confirmation is the strengthening provided by God for every baptized person to begin their growth and strengthening process in the spiritual warfare that is life. Here in this Sacrament, the newly confirmed “Soldiers of Christ” receive the “Breastplate of Righteousness… the Gospel of Peace… the Shield of Faith… the Helmet of Salvation…and the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God” (Ephesians 6:13-17).
Again, it is only the beginning, like a new recruit fresh onto the battlefield. But what would happen to a soldier if he enlisted in the military and instead of going to boot camp where he would receive his physical conditioning, his uniform, weapons, his battle gear and the like, he sent straight into the heat of the battle with no weapons, no protective gear, and no physical training? He is just a kid off the street. When all of a sudden he is caught-up in the midst of the most ferocious battle of all created history that has as its prize, his/her very soul?
The early Church recognized how confirmation was a part of spiritual warfare to spread and defend the faith. In 350 A.D., St. Cyril of Jerusalem gave a series of lectures during Easter week to the newly initiated members of the Church. When speaking on Confirmation, he said:
“Just as Christ, after His baptism and the coming upon Him of the Holy Spirit went forth and defeated the adversary, so also with you. After Holy Baptism and the Mystical Chrism [a.k.a. confirmation], having put on the full suit of armor of the Holy Spirit, you are to withstand the power of the adversary, and defeat him, saying, ‘I am able to do all things in Christ, Who strengthens me.”
At Pentecost, the Apostles received the Holy Spirit, and, in turn, were strengthened with what is called the “gifts of the Spirit” (see Isiah 11:2-3, 1 Cor. 12:4-11, Galatians 5:22-23) Therefore, they went all over the land and converted towns, and eventually nations all the while under intense persecution. This is the example of the strength that is poured out on the one confirmed.
Pentecost is the beginning of the harvest for all the souls in the world. It gives souls to God so these souls can do God’s work and bring other souls to God. Yes, it is humanly impossible to bring souls to God. This is why we have a sacrament for it.
Let us remember to tap into this often forgotten Sacrament as Paul reminded Timothy to do (see 2 Timothy 1:6-7). If you do, you certainly won’t be forgotten.