Friday, May 25, 2012

Tongues of fire, Pentecost, and Confirmation

By Father Ryan Erlenbush

Solemnity of Pentecost, Acts 2:1-11:

Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit.

The seven sacraments do not come from the Church, for she has not the power to create sacraments. Rather, they all were instituted by Christ himself. This is easiest to see in the cases of Baptism and the Eucharist, where he gave the very words and matter in the most explicit terms.

The Fathers and Doctors of the Church recognize the institution of the sacrament of Confirmation in the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Pentecost and Confirmation

The Catechism of the Catholic Church sees Pentecost as the principal Scriptural foundation for the sacrament of Confirmation:

“On several occasions Christ promised this outpouring of the Spirit, a promise which he fulfilled first on Easter Sunday [by breathing upon the Apostles] and then more strikingly at Pentecost.” (CCC 1287)

The connection between Confirmation and Pentecost is so strong, that the Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent desired that the sacrament “be administered principally at Pentecost”, explaining that “on that day especially were the Apostles strengthened and confirmed by the power of the Holy Ghost.”

St. Thomas Aquinas summarizes this tradition well:

“In this sacrament [Confirmation], the Holy Ghost is given to the baptized for strength: just as he was given to the apostles on the day of Pentecost.” (ST III, q.72, a.7)

Now, the Council of Trent anathematizes anyone who would claim that “the sacraments of the New Law were not all instituted by Jesus Christ, our Lord” (Session 7), and it is clear that this institution is primarily connected with the mystery of Pentecost.

Tongues of fire and Sacred Chrism

When the Church teaches that Christ instituted all seven of the Sacraments, she means to indicate that even the form and matter of the Sacraments are determined by the will of Christ and are not subject to the discipline of the Church.

This means that, for example, bread and wine must be used for the Eucharist and that water must be used for baptism. However, it does not mean that there can be no changes at all – for example, whether the bread is leavened or unleavened, whether the person to be baptized is submerged or not. Further, the exact wording is not absolutely essential, but rather the essential meaning of the words – hence, in the West we say “I baptize you”, but in the East they say “Be baptized”.

For the Eucharist and Baptism, it is fairly easy to see how Christ instituted the form and matter (i.e. the words and the materials). However, it is less clear how our Savior instituted the form and matter of the other sacraments. Specifically, we wonder how the Church came to use Sacred Chrism for Confirmation.

St. Thomas gives an excellent explanation, based on a mystical interpretation of the Pentecost narrative in the second chapter of Acts of the Apostles:

The Holy Spirit came down upon Mary and the Apostles in the form of fire because Sacred Chrism is made from olive oil, and olive oil burns. Further, the Spirit came in tongues of fire because, as a tongue communicates through sound, so the perfume of Chrism communicates through smell. (Cf. ST III, q.72, a.2, ad 1)

Now, of course, we do not say that this is a strictly literal interpretation of the text, but it is enlightening to see how the Common Doctor summarizes the tradition on the connection between Pentecost and Confirmation.

Confirmation and the Priesthood

The connection between Confirmation and Pentecost is so strong that, when St. Thomas asks whether one must be confirmed in order to be ordained a priest, the Angel of the Schools answers that, because the Apostles were priests before Pentecost, a man need only be baptized in order to receive the Sacrament of Order.

Still, for many reasons, it is more fitting for a man to first be confirmed and only later ordained a priest. But it is not requisite for the validity of ordination.

The Common Doctor makes this reference in the sed contra of ST Supplement, q.35, a.4:

“The apostles received the power of Order before the Ascension (John 20:22), where it is said: Receive the Holy Ghost. But they were confirmed after the Ascension by the coming of the Holy Ghost. Therefore, Order does not presuppose Confirmation.”

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