Ritual involves sacred objects, words and actions.
Like many people I enjoy plays, musicals and concerts. This powerful way of storytelling can be engaging and memorable. On many occasions I can participate but most of the time I am a silent spectator being entertained at some level. Within our liturgical celebrations, the sacred drama unfolds in the confirmation ceremony telling the powerful story of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. We are invited not just to be spectators but to fully engage with the words and the actions, entering into the ritual and growing more like Christ.
Christian liturgy works with a store of ritual symbols. Ritual involves sacred objects, words and actions. Their meaning unfolds as the ritual is enacted. In order to participate in the ritual, a person is engaged through all their senses giving them a new experience that can reveal new meaning. Generous symbols interact with us in a way that breathes new life into our faith. The Confirmation ceremony makes explicit the connection between the three sacraments of initiation – Baptism, Eucharist and Confirmation.
The ceremony brings together the following ritual elements: the assembly (the primary symbol of the liturgy), the presidency of the bishop, his vestments, the renewal of baptismal promises, the gesture of invocation, the prayer of invocation, the anointing with chrism, the words of anointing, and communal prayers of intercession. The bishop is the ordinary and original minister of Confirmation. The presence of the bishop emphasises the importance of the celebration. As pastor of his diocese, he expresses the union of those confirmed, with the wider Church throughout the ages. A priest may confirm if there is no bishop available.
The revised Rite of Confirmation in 1971 states that the essence of the Sacrament of Confirmation is the anointing with chrism in the laying on of hands. Anointing is a powerful ancient gesture which is found in the Hebrew Scriptures in the anointing of kings and priests. Moses anoints Aaron to consecrate him as a priest. Saul is anointed to be prince over the people of Israel. Samuel anoints David as king of Israel.
Anointing often signifies empowerment by the Holy Spirit. As the bishop anoints the candidate he uses the ancient Byzantine formula which was restored in the reform of the Rite of Confirmation, “Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit”.
“Sealing” was a word associated with the oil of chrism. To “seal” something denoted possession or belonging. In the ancient Roman world, slaves often bore the name of their owner branded on their body. Important documents were sealed or branded with wax. Chrism is a high quality olive oil mixed with balsam or perfume. It holds a particular symbolic meaning and is the primary gesture in the Rite of Confirmation.
The Chrism Mass takes place in the cathedral on Holy Thursday. The bishop blesses both the oil of catechumens used for baptism, and the oil of the sick, but significantly consecrates the oil of chrism. The bishop breathes over the oil of chrism evoking biblical images of the breath of the spirit and revealing its symbolic role in the Rite of Confirmation. After the ceremony the three oils are distributed to every parish.
Before the anointing with chrism takes place in the Confirmation ceremony, the bishop extends his hands over all the candidates invoking the Holy Spirit with the following prayer:
Send your Holy Spirit upon them to be their helper and their guide.
Give them the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
The spirit of right judgement and courage, the spirit of knowledge and reverence.
Fill them with the spirit of wonder and awe in your presence.
Then, he touches the forehead of each candidate anointing him or her with sacred chrism. The interaction that occurs between the bishop and the individual candidate in the Sacrament of Confirmation is a person to person contact and is at the centre of the sacramental experience. The catechism informs us that the imposition of hands, recognised in the scriptures as a sign for the gift of the Holy Spirit, is amplified with the action of anointing with chrism.
Many elements contribute to the richness of the Confirmation ceremony. The assembly, the bishop, the vestments, the sponsor, the actions the words and music, all allow the sacred drama to unfold. It is enacted throughout our lives, in our families and in our communities of faith. Confirmation celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit that is shared in the faith community and is present in each person. As the scent of the oil of chrism fills the church, the candidates and all present are reminded that knowing Christ should make a noticeable difference to the way we live.
*Rosemary Lavelle is Pastoral Coordinator at the Office for Evangelisation and Ecumenism in the Archdiocese of Dublin.