The Sacrament of Confirmation Part 1

In Luke 3:16, John the Baptist tells those who ask if he is the Christ “I baptize you with water; but he who is mightier than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”  The Catholic understanding of what John meant when he said that Christ would baptize with the Holy Spirit was covered here.  As Catholics, we would also understand that the reference to “fire” would be the sacrament of Confirmation. 

The Catechism speaks to the symbol of fire in paragraph 696Fire.  While water signifies birth and the fruitfulness of life given in the Holy Spirit, fire symbolizes the transforming energy of the Holy Spirit’s actions.  The prayer of the prophet Elijah, who “arose like fire” and whose “word burned like a torch,” brought down fire from heaven on the sacrifice on Mount Carmel.  This event was a “figure” of the fire of the Holy Spirit, who transforms what he touches.  John the Baptist, who goes “before [the Lord] in the spirit and power of Elijah,” proclaims Christ as the one who “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”  Jesus will say of the Spirit: “I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled!”In the form of tongues “as of fire,” the Holy Spirit rests on the disciples on the morning of Pentecost and fills them with himself.  The spiritual tradition has retained this symbolism of fire as one of the most expressive images of the Holy Spirit’s actions.  “Do not quench the Spirit.”

The apostles receive the Holy Spirit after the resurrection when Christ breathes on them (John 20:22), but Jesus still tells them “to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, ‘you heard from me, for John baptized with water, but before many days you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’” (Acts 1:4-5) Pentecost becomes the apostles experience of the Sacrament of Confirmation.  CCC1302“It is evident from its celebration that the effect of the sacrament of Confirmation is the special outpouring of the Holy Spirit as once granted to the apostles on the day of Pentecost.”

The Ignatius Study Bible on Acts 8:16 offers this comparison – “A distinction is made in Acts between Baptism, which confers the Spirit in an invisible way, and the laying on of hands, which calls down the Spirit to manifest his presence in a visible and charismatic way.  In the interpretive tradition of the Church, this deeper conferral of the Spirit through the imposition of hands is linked with Confirmation, a sacrament that follows Baptism and is integral to the process of Christian initiation.”

For any sacrament to be valid, proper form, matter and intent are required.  For the Sacrament of Confirmation, the proper form is the Bishop (or his designated priest) saying “Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.”  Proper matter is the anointing with Holy Chrism and the laying on of hands.  Proper intent is the desire to be confirmed and the intent of the minister of the Church to confirm. 

There are three different examples in the Book of Acts where the Holy Spirit is received in a visible and charismatic way outside of Baptism.  The first I want to consider is what happens when St. Peter first preaches the Gospel to the Gentiles.  This is recorded in Acts Chapter 10, and it’s important to understand the background for this event.  Prior to this time, only Jews had been baptized and admitted to the Christian faith.  Christ was a Jew, the apostles were all Jews, and when the apostles preached at Pentecost it was to the Jews who were gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the feast.  There is no evidence the apostles believed someone could become a Christian without first entering the Jewish faith.  But God intervened in a dramatic way to indicate this was not to be His plan.

We see a Gentile man named Cornelius who is described as “a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms liberally to the people, and prayed constantly to God.”  (Acts 10:2).  He receives a vision of an angel that terrifies him (we should never concede to thinking of angels as being sweet little “cherubs” if we consider what the Bible teaches us about them).  The angel tells him that “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God.  And now send men to Joppa, and bring one Simon who is called Peter; he is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside.”  (Acts 10:4-6)

The following day, as the men sent are nearing Joppa, St. Peter also has a vision.  In this vision he “saw the heaven opened, and something descending, like a great sheet, let down by four corners upon the earth.  In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air.  And there came a voice to him, ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’ But Peter said, ‘No, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.’ And the voice came to him again a second time, ‘What God has cleansed, you must not call common.’ This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven.”  (Acts 10:11-16). 

While Peter is trying to understand what is meant by the vision, the men sent by Cornelius arrive, and the Holy Spirit instructs Peter to go with them.  He does, and he preaches the Gospel to the Gentiles.  And he’s most surprised by what happens next:

While Peter was still saying this, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word.  And the believers from among the circumcised who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.  For they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God.  Then Peter declared, “Can any one forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”  And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.  Then they asked him to remain for some days.  (Acts 10:44-48)

Those who profess that salvation is by “faith alone” will often point to Acts 10 as an example that the Holy Spirit is received prior to Baptism or any other “work.”  The problem with this view are the other examples in Sacred Scripture where the experience is quite different.  From the Catholic perspective, this is clearly an extraordinary one-time event designed by God for the purpose of opening the Church to the Gentiles without requiring them to first become Jews.  It becomes a focal point of the teaching of St. Paul, who becomes the apostle to the Gentiles.  His advocacy for this against even some of the other apostles was covered here and here.  How could this event be seen as anything but extraordinary?  Cornelius is visited by the angel, St. Peter has a vision, Peter is instructed to go with them, and he is amazed when they receive the Holy Spirit.  The experience leads him to make the decision on behalf of the Church that they should be immediately baptized.  There is nothing in this event that indicates it will be the normal way that people receive the Holy Spirit.

In my next post I’ll look at two other events in the book of Acts that convey the “normative” way people are to receive the Holy Spirit.

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