The six confirmands rose from the front pew and took their places at the altar rail for Holy Communion. They were the first to receive these “creatures of Bread and Wine,” for this was their great and triumphant day of Holy Confirmation.
Three children and three adults were confirmed in our parish church. They confirmed, renewed, their Baptismal vows – or those vows made by their godparents – the Apostles’ Creed, the earliest statement of belief formed by the first-century Church. In Baptism, the person is made clean of sin. Sins are washed away through the waters poured, and the person is made an organic part of the Body of Christ, the Church. In Confirmation, the action of Baptism is completed. The person is now of an age to choose whether to believe or not to believe. He or she understands these creedal statements and can now confirm, complete what was begun in Baptism.
And in return, the confirmand is given defenses to live out those beliefs, the grace and strength of the Holy Spirit. As the bishop laid his hand upon each of one of them, he prayed,
Defend, O Lord, this thy Child with thy heavenly grace; that he may continue thine for ever; and daily increase in thy Holy Spirit more and more, until he come unto thy everlasting kingdom.
I often think of the phrase in Baptism, that we must “not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified, and manfully to fight under his banner, against sin, the world, and the devil; and to continue Christ’s faithful soldier and servant unto his life’s end.” These are fighting words! These are words that challenge many assumptions in our culture today. It is no wonder we need to be defended and strengthened in Confirmation.
Sin is an unpopular word. Evil is an unpopular word. Yet man’s history is bloody with sin – the massacres of Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao. Closer to home, gunmen shoot in neighborhood theaters and supermarket parking lots. Disgruntled employees murder co-workers. Is this not sin? Is this not evil? Do we really believe that with more education or more income or whatever… that these things will not happen?
Our own hearts aren’t always so clean, so good. We envy, hate, misrepresent, slander. We neglect one another and grow hard in our selfishness. We make excuses, we cover-up, lying to ourselves. We do not love enough, or we love in the wrong way, beyond the boundaries of marriage, against the law of God, and our loves begin to look like lusts, like avarice, like greed and gluttony. We do not obey the Ten Commandments. We do not keep Sunday holy. We worship false gods… we are lazy. The list is long.
So in Baptism we were told to fight against this stuff we call sin, the world, and the devil. But we need help to do this, and in Confirmation we are given it. We are given the graces of the Holy Spirit: wisdom and understanding, counsel and ghostly strength, knowledge and true godliness, the spirit of holy fear. This last gift is another unfashionable phrase: holy fear.
A friend of mine once said he couldn’t believe in a God that caused fear. And yet, should we not fear judgment and justice? We desire others to be judged, especially those that hurt us, wrong us. We expect judgment and justice for others, but somehow, we want our God to judge others but not ourselves. We escape.
I believe that holy fear is the recognition of reality, the way things are. A child is taught the reality of fire, of falling, of hurting himself. We want our children to be afraid of these things and to take precautions so they won’t get hurt. Just so, we should not shy away from defining sin and recognizing evil. Only with such wisdom, such clarity, can we take precautions, can we see that which hurts us. Holy fear is a healthy and sensible fear.
And once we can say these words, admitting they exist – sin, evil, holy fear – we can defend ourselves from these assaults. If we deny them we are open targets.
But going against cultural assumptions is not easy. So we Baptize our children and we Confirm them. We give them the armor of God. We state and restate the reality of our world, that there is darkness and there is light. We shine the light on the darkness to find our way through this time on earth, as we journey to see God. And of course the light that we shine is Christ’s light, one of love and mercy and salvation.
God through his Church, through his Body of Christ, shines these beams of light, penetrating the fog that covers the earth. Baptism and Confirmation are two of those rays that allow us to see, to recognize the reality of our world.
This morning, I knelt at the altar rail and received Holy Communion. I held sixteen-month-old Izzy, and she turned her head from side to side, watching, entranced. Her eyes were full of the scene – the priests in their robes of red, their knowing and quiet words as they fed each one of us, the Body of Christ, the Blood of Christ, the Host placed on the tongue or in the palm, the chalice raised to the lips, the soothing notes of the organ, pacing the dance of the liturgy that had led to this moment of union with God. She watched and listened as though absorbing every sight and sound, like a sponge. She knew this was good. She knew the reality of being in the center of God’s beating heart of love, his Church.
We toasted our confirmands later with champagne and chocolate cake. They shook hands and received congratulations, for this was their day of strengthening and making firm. This was their day of the completion of their Baptisms.