Thursday, September 11, 2008

A Look at Confirmation

So we're all getting confirmed on Sunday! The four oldest and I, that is. Papa Rooster was confirmed in our early days as Anglicans, but I was pregnant or nursing and unable to go into downtown Chicago with him at the time. Then at our old church, we kinda didn't worry about adult confirmations there for awhile--they've started offering classes now, I believe--and Bantam17 and Blondechick15 missed the kids' classes for two years running because of spring performances by our theater group. Then we moved and...we now have a church full of folks who've never been confirmed!

So we've all been going through a few classes on the basics of the faith. The younger kids (under 13) have been discussing and memorizing the Apostle's Creed, the Ten Commandments and the Lord's Prayer. In the classes for teenagers and adults, we focused on Baptism and Eucharist at length, as the two essential sacraments explicitly mandated by Christ, attested to by the practice of the early church from Acts on, and essential for salvation (John 3:6 and John 6:53-58).

We also discussed the defining characteristics of a sacrament vs. symbols and "sacramentals" (reminders like the sign of the cross). Just as a handshake only symbolizes an agreement, but a signature effects a contract, a sacrament is not just a symbol but an effective, "outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace." (~Book of Common Prayer)

Confirmation is a sacrament that, while not essential for salvation, is best viewed as a part of Baptism; it is mentioned repeatedly in Acts and has been practiced since the earliest days of the church. All through Acts, you see the apostles covering two bases with new converts: Have they been baptized? Have they received the Holy Spirit? In several cases in Acts, the Holy Spirit comes with baptism, but in a number of cases, one comes without the other.

So the early church made Confirmation--the prayer for the Holy Spirit--a part of Baptism. But the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation became separated over time, for practical reasons. As the church grew, it was not always possible for the bishops to get around to all the churches very often, and because of the high infant mortality rate, priests began going ahead and baptizing; when the bishop came, he would "confirm" the baptism with the laying on of hands and the prayer for the Holy Spirit.

The Eastern Orthodox church dealt a little differently with this problem, by delegating to the priest the authority to pray for the Holy Spirit, using oil that a bishop had consecrated. But the West kept the idea that only a bishop should confirm the believer's baptism, pray for the Holy Spirit and welcome him into the Church Universal, just as Peter, Paul and the other apostles performed this function in Acts. The bishop was a symbol of unity across time (the idea of apostolic succession, or the laying on of hands from the apostles which has been passed down to present-day bishops) and across the present day (because of his membership in the college of bishops). The unity of the Church remains intact, despite the personal fallibilities of bishops past or present.

Over time and because of the influence of the Reformation, Confirmation has become more of a rite of passage for children who were baptized as infants, as a public affirmation that they receive the faith as their own. But in a sacramental understanding, it is organically connected to baptism, which is why the Confirmation liturgy includes the renewal of baptismal vows, as well as the laying on of hands by the bishop, the prayer for the Holy Spirit, sealing with oil and participation in the Eucharist.

So do I believe that all these years I have not had the Holy Spirit? No, I believe I received the Holy Spirit with my baptism at age 7, since I have seen the fruits of the Spirit in my life. But do I believe that the Holy Spirit's power in my life may be strengthened by my Confirmation? I do. It never hurts to have a godly bishop pray for you :), and just as I am eager to receive the Eucharist each week, as an act of obedience and because of its strengthening qualities, I look forward to receiving this sacrament, confirming that I am fully equipped by the Spirit for ministry.

(Special thanks to Stephen G, who taught our classes and whose outlines were the basis of this post!)


Heather said...

Interesting... I'm sure I could think of several questions to ask regarding this (and I may at a later date), but I'll simply say that I hope it is an enjoyable and meaningful experience for all involved.

mama said...

How wonderful for you all, Jeannie! God's blesings to you this weekend.