(Scroll down to the three canons here to see the entire magisterial teaching. A current school of thought, led by Josef Ratzinger, would like to minimize this teaching even further, in the name of ecumenical outreach. But I will present the medieval development of the doctrine, which I think you will find a lovely complement to Vatican II.)
The central act of Confirmation has the Bishop (or his representative) mark the confirmand’s forehead with scented oil, or chrism. Both the Bishop and the act of anointing suggest a commissioning, a task. The Latin name “confirmation,” more specific than the older Greek name “chrismation,” says that this oil (this chrism) is there to strengthen (“confirm”) us for the mission.
The Bishop traditionally anoints the confirmand with the sign of the cross. He now carries the cross on his forehead, wherever he goes. The medieval crusaders wore a cross on their back – the English called them “crouchbacks,” “crouch” being a variant of “cross” – to mark them as soldiers for Christ. Confirmation is one of the sacraments that you can only receive once: once a crouchback, always a crouchback; the cross marks your forehead forever, to your glory or to your shame.
The medievals saw this as the sacrament of evangelization. You are sent to represent Christ and his Church to the world. It is thus appropriate, though not necessary, that the confirmand be approaching adulthood: now you go out into the world.
But the cross on your forehead symbolizes what kind of witness you are to make: principally a silent witness. You are not anointed to be a big talker, but to show people what a Christian is. Like the crouchback, you wear it on your back, not on your big mouth: they see what you do, not what you say.
The oil used is scented, usually with balsam. The medieval tradition likes this even better. You are not supposed to talk like a Christian – you are supposed to smell like one! There should be a certain something, something that permeates who you are. Romano Guardini, I think, said, they should be able to tell you are a Christian from the way you climb a tree. I think we’re supposed to laugh . . .but the point is, Confirmation commissions you to be a witness by everything you do.
Some of the new closing blessings at Mass are, in my opinion, kind of hokey, maybe a bit reductive, but it is worth pointing out somehow that the Mass ends with (and, in fact, in the West is named by) the word “sent”: ite, missa est can be translated simply, “go, you are sent” (or more literally: “this is the sending”).
Most important, though, Confirmation is a sacrament. It is not a mission we take on ourselves, and not one we are sent out to do by our own power. As the oil seeps into our skin (see my post on this tomorrow), so confirmation strengthens us. We are meant to rely on his power, the power of Christ.
We are marked with the sign of the Cross, both because we bear witness to Christ, and because it is Christ who gives us the strength to do it. The strength he gives is the strength of the Cross. The principal witnesses are the martyrs, who did not impose the faith, but suffered for it – and who were willing to face the end of their strength in the knowledge that Jesus is stronger even than death.
Confirmation is, in one sense, a filling out of our Baptism. We can practice devotion to Confirmation by literally wearing a Baptismal garment: a cross, a metal, a scapular. But perhaps we would express the true meaning of Confirmation better by wearing our garment hidden under our clothes: a reminder that our witness is to be far more profound than a bumper sticker.
In another sense, since Confirmation strengthens us when we are tempted to hide the light of Christ, it is like Confession. And so, like Confession, we can practice devotion to Confirmation through little acts of penance: in this case, little reminders to ourselves that we need to be tough, willing to suffer for the truth of the Gospel.
Always we can make the sign of the Cross, and pray “come, Holy Spirit,” to enlighten and strengthen us for witness.
Then we can be as Jesus:
“Gird thy sword upon thy thigh, O most mighty, with thy glory and thy majesty. And in thy majesty ride prosperously because of truth and meekness and righteousness” (Ps. 45:3-4).
How do you keep alive your call to be an apostolic witness?