Confirmation in the Church Fathers

It has been said — though I know not by whom — that Confirmation is “a sacrament in search of a theology.” Confirmation preparation programs often emphasize the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit and state that Confirmation, in some way, completes Baptism; it is also often seen as an affirmation of adult belief, as the adolescent “taking ownership” of the Baptism received as an infant. Yet is there a richer, more complex theology behind this sacrament? Here I would like to offer the teachings of the Church Fathers on Confirmation so that, through a deeper understanding of this sacrament, pastors and catechists can better instruct the youth under their care.

Confirmation (or Chrismation, as it is typically called in the East) has, from the beginning, been fairly ill-defined in its theology. A key reason for this is that it was typically administered immediately after Baptism, when the Sacraments of Initiation were all received at once. The catechumen would renounce Satan, be exorcised, profess the Creed, be anointed, and receive Baptism; afterwards, he would receive Confirmation, be clothed in a white garment, and, at the end of the Liturgy, receive the Eucharist for the first time. This was the original Christian tradition, kept, to this day, among the Eastern Churches, and, in the Roman Church, revived by the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults after the Second Vatican Council. This close connection of Confirmation with Baptism meant that the former was often subsumed into the latter, sometimes being viewed merely as part of the greater baptismal rites — like the pre-baptismal anointing — instead of as a sacrament in its own right. In the West, its status as a separate sacrament was sharpened as it was temporally removed from Baptism, due to the Western teaching of the bishop as the ordinary minister of the sacrament. As the members of the Church multiplied and diocese grew, the bishop could not personally preside at every Baptism; in order to not delay Baptism, it would be administered by the local priests, and Confirmation would be administered at a later time, when the bishop visited an area. In the East, then, Confirmation retained its traditional link with Baptism, at the risk of being subsumed into it; in the West, it was temporally removed from Baptism, emphasizing its status as a separate sacrament, yet leading to some confusion over its meaning.

As said above, Confirmation preparation programs typically focus on Confirmation as a receiving, or a deepening, of the Holy Spirit, especially with His seven attendant gifts. This sometimes leads to the impression that a person does not receive the Holy Spirit until Confirmation. This is a grave mistake, for we receive the full Trinity, including the Holy Spirit, dwelling within us, at Baptism. To quote but two of the Fathers, St. Mark the Hermit declares, “We receive the Holy Spirit through Baptism. And since He is called the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christ; for this reason, through the Spirit, we receive the Father and the Son,” while Philoxenus of Mabbug, one of the Syriac Fathers, speaks of the Holy Spirit as one “Who is mingled in our souls and bodies through the oil and the water,” that is, through both Confirmation and Baptism.1

Nevertheless, though the Spirit is received at Baptism, there is a sense in which Confirmation, “the sacred perfection of divine-begetting, joins the completed one with the divinely-ruling Spirit,” as Pseudo-Dionysius says.2 By looking at the teachings of the Fathers, there is no way to understand Confirmation apart from the Spirit. St. Cyril of Jerusalem teaches us that, in Confirmation, we are made like Christ in being chrismated by the Holy Spirit; as, after His Baptism, “He was chrismated with the noetic oil of gladness, that is, the Holy Spirit, called the oil of gladness through being the cause of spiritual gladness,” we, too, “were chrismated with oil, becoming communers and partakers of Christ.”3 In Greek, this becoming a partaker of Christ is more pronounced through vocabulary: the name “Christ” is related to chrisma, “oil,” since Christos — the Greek translation of the Hebrew Meshiach, “Messiah” — means “anointed one.” Thus, many of the Fathers talk about how it is through Confirmation that we receive the right to be called “Christians,” since we are anointed.

St. Cyril takes the connection of chrism to the Spirit much farther than the other Fathers, going so far as to refer to a type of transubstantiation;4 other Fathers, though, do agree with him that the chrism is deeply connected with the Spirit. “The sacrament of this unction is that invisible power,” says St. Ildefonsus, “the invisible unction is the Holy Spirit.”5 Likewise, the connection of Confirmation with the seven gifts of the Spirit, particularly, is found in the Fathers. St. Ambrose might be considered the most articulate teacher of this aspect, for instance, when he tells the neophytes:

There follows the spiritual sign which you have heard read of today; since, after the font, it still remains that perfection come to be; when, at the invocation of the priest, the Holy Spirit is infused, the Spirit of wisdom and of intellect, the Spirit of counsel and of virtue, the Spirit of knowledge and of piety, the Spirit of holy fear: that is, the seven virtues of the Spirit (Is 11:2).6

These commonly taught aspects of Confirmation — the influence of the Holy Spirit and His seven gifts — find support in the Church Fathers, as long as they are not viewed to the exclusion of the Spirit’s presence and role in Baptism. But there are other aspects of oil that the Fathers connect to Confirmation. Oil was commonly used in the ancient world to anoint athletes, especially wrestlers, before a sporting match; this symbolism is occasionally used, though it is typically applied to the pre-Baptismal anointing. What played a larger part in the Fathers’ descriptions of Confirmation was a specifically Jewish role of oil: the anointing of kings and priests.

We often speak of how Christ has the three offices of king, prophet, and priest, and how we share in those. While the Church Fathers rarely connect prophecy to Confirmation, outside of the occasional quotation of “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me” (Is 61:1 RSV-CE), they frequently relate this sacrament to the kingly and priestly duties. One key text, which opens the discussion of Confirmation in a number of the Fathers, is from the Psalms: “It is like the precious oil upon the head, running down upon the beard, upon the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes” (Ps 133:2). Aaron was anointed unto the priesthood; likewise, Saul, David, and others were anointed unto kingship. These anointings in the Old Testament had temporal effects, granting the anointed (the “Christ”) the power of priesthood or kingship in time; “but this chrism, which is that unction which is imposed on you,” St. Maximus of Turin says, “bestows the dignity of that priesthood which, when it is once received, will never be ended . . . you are to obtain, by that chrismation, the kingship and priesthood of future glory.”7 In the Old Testament, only the elect were anointed, for few were kings and priests; now, though, as St. Ildefonsus teaches, “the whole Church is consecrated with the chrism of holy unguent, wherefore it is the holiest member of the eternal King and Priest.”8 Such teachings naturally lead into a quotation from St. Peter: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (1 Pet 2:9). This kingship through Confirmation is echoed in the Chaldean Rite, where the confirmand, after receiving the chrism, is crowned, though the text of the Rite does not emphasize this.

We might summarize these findings thus: certainly, there is a strong connection, in the Fathers, between Confirmation and the Holy Spirit. They sometimes even spoke as if Confirmation, specifically, gave the Spirit to the Christian: “God the Father signed you, Christ the Lord confirmed you; and He gave the Spirit as a pledge in your hearts,” St. Ambrose announces.9 The Spirit cannot be divided from Baptism, though; certainly the Spirit is received in Baptism, but, we could perhaps say, the Spirit is the prime actor in Confirmation. The common emphasis on the seven gifts of the Spirit also has a basis in the Fathers, especially St. Ambrose. In addition, though, the Fathers shed light on another aspect of Confirmation: the New Testament counterpart to Old Testament anointings.

Perhaps it is this last point that could be drawn from the Fathers and added into catechesis for Confirmation. In the Old Testament, priests and kings were anointed, granting them their rights and powers of priesthood and kingship. In being anointed, they also received the title of “anointed one” — “Christ” or “Messiah.” Then, it was only a temporal gift for the few, for the priesthood and kingship ended with death. But now, through Christ, the truly Anointed One, this gift is given to all and made eternal. Christ was anointed with the true chrism, the Holy Spirit, after His Baptism, and so we are as well. St. Cyril of Jerusalem states it well:

And as Christ was truly crucified, and buried, and arose; so you, too, in Baptism, in likeness, were deemed worthy to be crucified, and buried, and arisen with Him; so also with the chrismation. He was chrismated with the noetic oil of gladness, that is, the Holy Spirit, called the oil of gladness, through being the cause of spiritual gladness; and you were chrismated with oil, becoming communers and partakers of Christ.10

In Baptism, we partake in Christ’s Passion, death, burial, and Resurrection; likewise in Confirmation, we partake in His anointing, so that St. Cyril can rightly say to us, “You have become Christs, having received the antitype of the Holy Spirit.”11 This anointing gives us the right to be truly called “Christians,” “anointed ones,” and, as it bestowed royal and priestly power on the Jews of old, so, too, it bestows them on us. But the priesthood and kingship we receive are not temporary, but eternal, a mark on our soul that lasts after death, until we enter the Kingdom of Heaven, where we will become, in some way, both co-heirs and co-ministers with Christ.

Such, then, is some of the Fathers’ teaching on Confirmation. A deeper study would be useful, especially one plumbing the unexplored depths of Syriac Christianity, but some guidance is already found here, especially how we can see Confirmation as the antitype of Old Testament anointings. This can provide an additional, rich element to explore in Confirmation catechesis; in particular, it easily allows for teaching how we share in Christ’s offices of priest, prophet, and king. The Fathers, then, can help us understand the power of what occurs when we are “sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit,” and how it can help us in our path to union with the Lord, to our divinization — the theosis of the Eastern Church — for, as Nicholas Cabasilas wrote at the end of the Middle Ages, “We are chrismated in order that we may become partakers of the royal anointing of His deification.”12

  1. St. Mark the Hermit, On Baptism (PG 65:1008D); Philoxenus of Mabbug, On the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, in The Syriac Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life, tr. Sebastian Brock, Cistercian Studies 101 (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, Inc., 1987), 112. Note that references to PG and PL refer, respectively, to two collections edited by JP Migne: Patrologiae Cursus Completus, Series Graeca (1857–66) and Patrologiae Cursus Completus, Series Latina (1841–55). References refer to the series, volume number, and column numbers, with letters denoting the four markers within each column (A–D).
  2. Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, Ecclesiastical Hierarchy IV.III.8 (PG 3:404C).
  3. St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Mystagogical Catecheses III.2 (PG 33:1089A–B). Noetic is from a Greek term meaning “intelligible”; it is related to the term nous, meaning “mind.”
  4. See St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Mystagogical Catecheses III.3 (PG 33:1089C–1092A): “But see that you do not think this myron to be bare. For as the bread of the Eucharist, with the epiclesis of the Holy Spirit, is no longer simple bread, but the Body of Christ; so also this holy myron, no longer bare, not, as some say, common, after the epiclesis; but it is the charism of Christ and the Holy Spirit, by the coming of His deity, become energetic. Which is symbolically anointed on your forehead, and the other sense organs. And as the body is anointed with the visible myron, the soul is sanctified by the holy and life-giving Spirit.” Myron is the word typically used in Greek to refer to chrism, that is, the consecrated oil used for Confirmation; the Greek word chrisma is used for “oil” more generally.
  5. St. Ildefonsus, On the Knowledge of Baptism §CXXV (PL 96:162D).
  6. St. Ambrose of Milan, On the Sacraments, III.II.8 (PL 16:434A).
  7. St. Maximus of Turin, Tractate III, On Baptism (PL 57:779A).
  8. St. Ildefonsus, On the Knowledge of Baptism §CXXIII (PL 96:162B).
  9. St. Ambrose of Milan, On the Mysteries, VII.42 (PL 16:403A).
  10. St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Mystagogical Catecheses III.2 (PG 33:1089A–B).
  11. St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Mystagogical Catecheses III.1 (PG 33:1088A).
  12. Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, tr. Carmino J. deCatanzaro (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Publishing Company/New York: Athens Printing Company, 1982), 66.
Brandon P. Otto About Brandon P. Otto

Brandon P. Otto is a member of the St. Louis Byzantine Catholic Mission in St. Louis, MO. He obtained a Master's Degree in Theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is currently an independent scholar, with particular interest in the Fathers and liturgies of the Eastern Churches, as well as Christian poetry.

Comments

  1. Avatar ellen gaffney says:

    Would like more Discernment on whether this should be an adult Preparation. Did read that the Sacrament was combined with First Communion in some Diocese. Have read also that when Children leave for College that 75 % fall away from the Church. We have so much Confusion in today’s Church, and it is saddening to hear of the Suffering, and hatred of Christianity. Being an 85 yr old retired Rn — Having made my Communion and Confirmation in 5th Grade, in the Chicago area, we pretty much memorized the Baltimore catechism at this early age. We learned that Confirmation made us Soldiers of Christ, and took on that Role as an ADULT?? This article was very Informative — would like to have a follow up!!

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