Glistening with holiness
The anointing with chrism is the highpoint of the confirmation ritual. Chrism is oil (usually olive oil) that has a scent mixed into it (balsam, for example). Chrism for all the parishes of a diocese is consecrated every year during Holy Week by the bishop at a ritual at the cathedral. In our day, chrism is used for anointings at baptism, confirmation, and ordination. It is also used for the dedication of a church, the dedication of an altar, and the dedication of bells.
Sometimes we think of “anointing” as very special moments, reserved to rare times in our lives. In reality, anointing is much more common. You probably “anointed” yourself this morning. Before soap was invented, some people used oil to clean themselves. Every time you take a shower or wash your hands, you are anointing yourself. If you put on lip balm or sun block when you go to the beach, you are anointing yourself. Did you put on a little perfume or cologne before you left the house today? More anointing. Have you ever applied a heat rub or a menthol rub when you had a strained muscle or a bad cold? You’re anointed.
High-test oil for the engine of the faith
When the candidates are anointed sacramentally, the oil and the action of anointing “speak” these meanings. By their sacramental anointing, the Holy Spirit gives the candidates the grace to see God in all the ordinary interactions of daily life: cleansing, protecting, comforting, perfuming, healing, strengthening and so on. In fact, the very name “Christian” literally means “anointed one.”
Anointing with the Holy Spirit goes beyond applying a little dab of ointment. God is anointing. The primary anointing is that of the Father anointing the Son with the power of the Spirit. It is the very action of anointing itself that reveals the mystery of the Trinity. “Christ” means the one “anointed” (or christened) in God’s Spirit. In the sacramental anointing of Christians, humanity shares in the divine anointing of Christ. And, unlike the dab of ointment we might apply when getting ready for the day, the Holy Spirit is full anointing permeating our entire being. It is an anointing that Luke likened to violent wind. The Spirit filled Christ with that holy power, and Christ breathes out that same powerful Spirit on the church.
In those places where a significant amount of oil is used—enough to run down the face and onto the anointed one’s collar—the participants experience a more visceral sense of fullness of God’s Spirit. It seems to flood the senses and cover the body. One has the sense of being soaked in God’s presence.
Sealing the deal—the ultimate point of no return
When Christians are anointed in the confirmation ritual, the bishop says “Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.” The seal is related to the anointing. To “seal” something can mean a lot of different things. If you seal an envelope, you are sure the contents or message will be delivered safe and intact. Or, if you want to keep something really safe, you might seal it away in a vault. You can also “seal” a deal or have a certificate marked with an official seal. That is, you come to agreement, and you ratify the deal with some mark or sign such as a signature or a handshake.
You might also do something to permanently change the course of events in your life. In that case, you might say your fate is “sealed.” There is no turning back. Confirmation has all of these meanings, but especially this last one. Like baptism, confirmation leaves a permanent “mark” on us. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says,
By this anointing, the confirmand receives the “mark,” the seal of the Holy Spirit. A seal is a symbol of a person, a sign of personal authority, or ownership of an object (cf. Gen 38:18; 41:42; Deut 32:34; CT 8:6). Hence, soldiers were marked with the leader’s seal and slaves with their master’s. A seal authenticates a juridical act or a document and occasionally makes it secret (cf. 1 Kings 21:8; Jer 32:10, Isa 29:11). (1295)
By the gift of the Holy Spirit, the fate of the Christian is sealed. They are forever claimed for Christ and committed to the mission of establishing God’s reign.
Christ is the one upon whom “God the Father has set his seal” (Jn 6:27). Likewise, the faithful are sealed in Christ. Those who are sealed are irrevocably claimed by God. They are marked or signed as belonging to a new people.
Belonging is an important idea. It is said that Roman soldiers were tattooed to indicate what regiment they belonged to. Some love-struck young people get the name of their beloved tattooed on their bodies. Jewish concentration camp prisoners were marked as a sign of their subjugation, but also as a sign of their race and religion.
Christians are signed with the cross, which is also a sign of torture and subjugation. But it is also a sign of commitment and mission. In confirmation, the faithful are forever sealed as people of the cross.
In the next session, we’ll cover the gifts of the Holy Spirit that are celebrated in confirmation.