Understanding the sacraments: Confirmation: a mystagogical catechesis

The baptized are more perfectly bound to the Church with the sacrament of Confirmation

Liturgical catechesis has one purpose: “to initiate people into the mystery of Christ (It is ‘mystagogy’) by proceeding from the visible to the invisible, from the sign to the thing signified, from the ‘sacraments’ to the ‘mysteries’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1075). A catechesis that initiates the faithful into the mystery of Christ is called a mystagogical catechesis.

Benedict XVI has described the elements essential to an effective mystagogical catechesis. First, it interprets the sacramental rite in the light of salvation history. Second, it presents the meaning of the signs within the rite. And third, it explains how the sacrament touches every aspect of one’s life. In this month’s column I want to present a brief mystagogical catechesis of the sacrament of Confirmation.

In the Constitution on the Church, the Second Vatican Council summarized the effects of this sacrament: “by the sacrament of Confirmation, [the baptized] are more perfectly bound to the Church and are enriched with a special strength of the Holy Spirit. Hence they are, as true witnesses of Christ, more strictly obliged to spread and defend the faith by word and deed” (Lumen Gentium, 11). Baptism, Eucharist and Confirmation together constitute the sacraments of initiation.

The first element of a mystagogical catechesis places the rite within the whole of salvation history, revealing the continuity between the Old and New Testaments. One of the sources of this is the readings.

The Rite of Confirmation provides a number of Old Testament options: Isaiah 11:1-4a; 42:1-3; 61:1-3a, 6a, 8b-9; Ezekiel 36:24-28; Joel 2:23a, 26-30a. I would like to consider one passage here, Isaiah 11:1-4a, which includes the following excerpt, describing a descendant of Jesse: “The spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him: a spirit of wisdom and of understanding, a spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the LORD, and his delight shall be the fear of the LORD.” This passage is particularly important because it is part of the current rite, the prayer said by the bishop:  Give them the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of right judgment and courage, the spirit of knowledge and reverence. Fill them with the spirit of wonder and awe in your presence.

We know that this passage from Isaiah has been part of the prayer of Confirmation since at least the fourth century. St. Ambrose (d. 397) wrote that the whole rite of initiation is brought to “perfect fulfillment…when the Holy Spirit is infused at the priest’s invocation: ‘the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and strength, the Spirit of knowledge and piety, the Spirit of holy fear.’ These might be called the seven ‘virtues’ of the Spirit.”

The second element of a mystagogical catechesis is an interpretation of the signs. According to the Catechism, “In treating the rite of Confirmation, it is fitting to consider the sign of anointing” (CCC, 1293). In Confirmation, the anointing with sacred chrism “is the sign of consecration. By Confirmation Christians, that is, those who are anointed, share more completely in the mission of Jesus Christ and the fullness of the Holy Spirit with which he is filled, so that their lives may give off ‘the aroma of Christ’” (CCC, 1294). Church fathers explain the reality and significance of the sacred chrism, which they called muron. Here is St. Cyril of Jerusalem’s explanation: “Take care not to imagine that this muron is anything ordinary. In the same way as the bread of the Eucharist after the invocation of the Holy Spirit is no more ordinary bread, but the Body of Christ, so the holy muron is no longer ordinary, or, if you prefer the word, common, after the epiclesis, but the charism of Christ, made efficacious of the Holy Spirit by the presence of His divinity.”

Finally, a mystagogical catechesis explains how Confirmation touches every aspect of one’s life. Let’s listen again to the words of the Catechism: “This seal of the Holy Spirit [cf. 2 Corinthians 1:21-22] marks our total belonging to Christ, our enrollment in his service forever, as well as the promise of divine protection in the great eschatological trial” (CCC, 1296). Even a brief mystagogical catechesis of Confirmation reveals the riches of the sacrament: its roots in the Old Testament, the meaning and power of anointing with the sacred chrism, its transforming power. May we fervently make our own the prayer from the ritual Mass for Confirmation: “May the Paraclete who proceeds from you…enlighten our minds and lead us into all truth, just as your Son has promised.” n

 

Father Stice directs the diocesan Office of Worship and Liturgy. He can be reached at frrandy@dioknox.org.

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