‘While Peter was still speaking the Holy Spirit came down on all the listeners’ (1st Reading). That’s from the Acts of the Apostles. That book tells the story of the first Christians and how the Church began. Often in the Acts of the Apostles, the Holy Spirit ‘comes’, ‘comes down on’, ‘falls on’, is ‘poured out on’, and ‘fills’ people. The story begins with the great public outpouring on the Apostles at Pentecost. But then there are others too – small-scale Pentecosts, as it were. The Holy Spirit is for everyone and all time. Forgive the comparison, but think of a football that keeps bouncing across the field long after it was first kicked. In today’s reading, the Holy Spirit comes on the pagan Cornelius and his household even before they are baptised. On two other occasions in Acts, he comes some time after people have been baptised. He comes through the laying on of hands by an apostle, Peter, John or Paul. And our Sacrament of Confirmation picks up from this. We have been baptized, but then later (usually) we are confirmed. We are confirmed (usually) by a bishop – bishops are successors of the apostles. He prays over us and anoints us on the forehead with Chrism. And we are ‘sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit’; we receive the Holy Spirit in his fullness with his seven gifts. This is why Pope St John Paul II called Confirmation ‘a personal Pentecost for life.’
I’ve used one comparison already. I’d like to offer three others, to help us understand this beautiful Sacrament.
- We’re familiar with icons. There’s a whole process to painting them. First of all, the painter prepares a piece of wood, a wooden board, and puts several layers of what is called gesso on it. Then he or she first etches and then paints the figure of Christ or Mary or the saint or angel on it. Finally, there is the lettering, for example the name of the saint. But, actually, that’s not the end. The icon is now left for a time to settle and dry. And then it is varnished. Classical varnish is made with linseed oil. And what does the varnish do? 1) It seals, protects the icon, e.g. from dust or over-exposure; it makes it easy to clean. 2) It gives it a gloss, a shine, a radiance. And now it is finally ready and once blessed can take its full place in the worship of the Church and the life of prayer.
You see the connections! Our humanity is like a living wooden board. It’s created to carry the image and likeness of Christ. It is stained and dirtied by sin, but in baptism it’s cleaned again and receives the likeness of Christ. God etches the figure of Christ into our very being. We become images of Christ, Christ-bearers. We’re no longer just a piece of wood; we’re an icon, a holy image. Then in Confirmation, God the Artist ‘varnishes’ us with the perfumed oil of Chrism. He seals us with the gift of the Holy Spirit. He takes us under his protection. He seals us for eternal life. And we are able, not just to be an image, but a strong, shining image, a ‘witness’ to Christ, radiant with him – so that others can see him too. And we take our full place in the worship of the Church and the life of prayer.
- What a noisy place the world is! Not just physically. There are so many voices telling us what is good for us, for our health, for our life, for society, for the world. There’s so much anger and pain. It’s like the sound of an orchestra tuning up before a concert. It’s cacophony. It’s as though there are many songs all being sung at the same time, and we are being asked to join in. But they’re not in harmony.
Then imagine that in the middle of that noise, another note is heard. It’s quiet, but it’s powerful. It’s not easily heard, but while all the other noises come and go, this one persists. Think of a sonorous gong being gently struck again and again. This is Christ. He’s the note struck by the Father, he’s God’s song entering into all this noise. The note of God’s love and of true humanity is being sounded. It’s good, true and beautiful, and it captures the heart that hears it. Christ brought it into the world when he was born of the Virgin Mary. He sang it out, so to say, in the beatitudes and the parables. He sang it most of all on the Cross, loving to the end. But the noise of the world crowded on top of it, muffled it, reduced it to silence in the tomb. Then God the Father, God the Composer, raised him from the dead, and that note sounded out again. It’s a still small voice, like the one Elijah heard in the cave. But it’s strong and resonant and it doesn’t go away.
Faith is the opening of our inner ear to catch the note and hear the song. Faith recognises its divine and human truth; its goodness and beauty. Faith hears the music that the Gospel of Christ is, and we are happy. But there’s something more. We’re not just asked to hear and believe. We’re called to take the music in and then sing it out. ‘Sing a new song to the Lord.’ We’re asked to join the choir, as it were, to add our own voice, to take up the song ourselves. We’re asked to to attune our whole lives to it – to make our lives a beautiful music for God. This is the grace of the Holy Spirit and his seven gifts. We are enrolled in the choir of the Church. We start to sing the music which is Christ. We become the song. Tuning into Grace was the title of a book by a French Cistercian Abbot. We can recognise the false notes now, including our own. We have the music within us, and all the decisions and doings of our life, little or big, can be in harmony with God, and reverberate the beauty and truth of Christ.
- Lastly, think of a bus. Think of the Church as a bus. It’s the great bus that travels through time and takes human beings to heaven. It has been rolling along since Pentecost and it will roll on till the end of the world, till it reaches the heavenly Jerusalem. Our baptism is like a bus ticket and believing is getting on board. There we meet our fellow-passengers. (There are some strange ones among them!). We begin the journey of faith in the communion of the Church. But we’re not meant just to be passive, staring out of the window or complaining that the bus is behind time. No, we want to help the bus on its way. We want to help our fellow-passengers to reach the destination. We want to invite other people aboard. We want to be responsible for others. Think then of learning to drive, passing the test, gaining a licence, and so being able to help drive the bus.
By our baptism, we become passengers, by the Gift of the Holy Spirit drivers as well, complete with licence! In the Sacrament of Confirmation, our Lord makes us adult members of the Church. We can contribute to the life of the Church. We become co-responsible for her. We can assume responsibilities within the parish, in the liturgy, in service to others. We can encourage others to board the bus.
At the end of Mass, you will receive a certificate saying you are confirmed. It will be put somewhere safe. I beg you, though, don’t put the Holy Spirit and his gifts and powers away. You are drivers now and singers and shining images! Think carefully how you’re going to fulfil all this, and keep on bringing the joy you’re bringing all of us today!