We seem so often to be incurable legalists when it comes to the things of God. Some people talk as though Baptism doesn’t really stick unless you are confirmed too. Others wonder whether, since Baptism does “stick”, Confirmation is really necessary—as though the goal is to achieve a sort Minimum Daily Adult Requirement level of being “good enough” without having to really do the “extra credit” work.
This entire approach to the sacraments is profoundly out of tune with what God is trying to say to us in these cosmic gestures of love. It’s like a bride on her wedding night asking “If I kiss my husband on the altar is that enough, or do I have to kiss him again later?” It’s like a mother giving birth and then saying, “Look. The kid is breathing. Do I have to clothe or feed him too?” It’s like asking “Why bother getting an A when a D is a passing grade?” We are not called to Minimum Daily Adult Requirement Christianity. We are called to “to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Eph 4:13).
Baptism corresponds to birth: it is the sacrament of being “born again”. But we are not a people who buy into the fiction of “once saved, always saved”. We believe that Baptism, like birth, is the start of the story, not the end of it. So we take God seriously when he tells us that he calls us, both individually and corporately, to maturity in Christ. It is that maturity, that “measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” toward which Confirmation is ordered.
As we have seen, Confirmation “seals” the believer and leaves a “mark” on his soul. That’s because Confirmation is ordered toward mission: toward making your life something which, when read by others, says “My life is not explicable apart from Jesus Christ.” That’s why Paul says “You are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Cor 3:3). As mature Christians, we are commissioned by Holy Church to go and bear witness to Jesus Christ in the world, that others might come to believe in Him. This is why the Mass ends with the words “Ite, missa est”: “Go, you are sent.” “Apostle” means “sent one”. With the power of Confirmation, we are granted the grace to be apostles to the world. Our apostolate begins the moment Mass ends, because in the world we laypeople preside every bit as much as, at the altar, the priest presides. You are signed with the Cross, sealed with the Chrism, and delivered to the world to be read.
One notable fact about Confirmation is that the Church has a very different idea of what maturity looks like. Generally, Confirmation happens in adolescence in the West since that is roughly the age of “becoming adult”. But in the East, Confirmation happens for infants at the same time as Baptism. That’s because, as St. Thomas reminds us of this:
Age of body does not determine age of soul. Even in childhood man can attain spiritual maturity: as the book of Wisdom says: “For old age is not honored for length of time, or measured by number of years.” Many children, through the strength of the Holy Spirit they have received, have bravely fought for Christ even to the shedding of their blood.
Because Confirmation is grace and not magic, preparation is important to receive it. Confirmation gives us the Holy Spirit in order to strengthen our relationship with God as his children, but it also has a huge horizontal dimension meant to strengthen our bond with the Church and enable us to be witnesses sent by God through Holy Church to the world. This is one of the ways in which Christian maturity is counter-cultural. Instead of sending us off to be the Lone Ranger Rugged Individualist, it sends us more deeply into the heart of the Church and bids us speak to the world from there. That, among other things, is what is symbolized by the necessity of a sponsor for Confirmation.
None of this is doable, of course, by one’s self. That is why the minister of the sacrament prays for the confirmands, “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.”
Next week, we will start looking at the seven sanctifying gifts of the Holy Spirit and how we can lay hold of them.