Solemnity of Pentecost
And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a mighty wind coming: and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them parted tongues, as it were of fire: and it sat upon every one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost. (Acts of the Apostles 2:2-4)
On the fiftieth day, the feast of Pentecost, which was a Sunday that year, the Holy Spirit came down in visible form upon the Apostles confirming them in the truth of the Gospel. Until this time, the Apostles were rather timid and fearful. They were not yet perfect, but were still growing in the faith.
While they themselves certainly believed in the truth of the Resurrection, the Apostles lacked the requisite strength to preach this truth openly and to defend the Gospel against every assault of the world and the devil.
In a word, we may say that the Apostles were not yet confirmed. Through the divine power and the external sign of tongues of fire, our Savior conferred upon the Twelve the reality of the sacrament of Confirmation.
Sacred Chrism at Pentecost?
If Pentecost was truly the institution of the sacrament of Confirmation and if the Apostles were indeed confirmed at Pentecost, then we may wonder: Where was the Sacred Chrism?
The Church professes and believes that our Savior instituted the form and matter of the sacraments, but not always openly and before all. Thus, we do not expect to find the institution of each of the sacraments clearly detailed in the gospels. However, we must hold that the sacraments were indeed instituted by Christ – and this means that he indicated (either openly during his life on earth, or in a hidden way which was later made manifest by his Apostles) the essential elements of each of the sacraments, i.e. the words and materials.
In baptism, the matter is water and the form is the words, “I baptize you in the name, etc.” For the Eucharist, the matter is bread and wine while the form is, “This is my body” and “This is the chalice of my blood, etc.” For these two sacraments, we see the matter and form instituted openly and manifestly by Christ.
However, confirmation is not quite so clear. While we know that our Savior indicated that the full outpouring of the Spirit would occur after his Ascension, and thus the effect of the sacrament was clearly indicated, it is not as obvious where Sacred Chrism was established as the matter of Confirmation.
The Angelic Thomas (ST III, q.72, a.2, ad 1)
“Christ, by the power which he exercises in the sacraments, bestowed on the apostles the reality of this sacrament, i.e. the fullness of the Holy Ghost, without the sacrament itself, because they had received the first fruits of the Spirit (Romans 8:23).
“Nevertheless, something of keeping with the matter of this sacrament was displayed to the apostles in a sensible manner when they received the Holy Ghost. For that the Holy Ghost came down upon them in a sensible manner under the form of fire, refers to the same signification as oil: except insofar as fire has an active power while oil has a passive power, as being the matter and incentive of fire. And this was guite fitting: for it was through the apostles that the grace of the Holy Ghost has to flow forth to others.
“Again, the Holy Ghost came down on the apostles in the shape of a tongue. Which refers to the same signification as balm: except insofar as the tongue communicates with others by speech, but balm, by its odor. Because, to wit, the apostles were filled with the Holy Ghost, as teachers of the Faith; but the rest of the believers, as doing that which gives edification to the faithful.”
Thus, both oil and chrism are mystically hidden in the visible signs of Pentecost. For oil is potential fire, and fire is actualized oil. And further, the tongue is to the ear what chrism is to the nose. Thus, the tongues of fire signify (mystically, at least) the oil and chrism which are blessed and consecrated as Sacred Chrism for Confirmation.
Why must the oil and chrism be blessed by the Bishop?
And it is clear why the Sacred Chrism must be blessed by the Bishop but the matter of other sacraments – for example, the water of baptism or the bread and wine of the Eucharist – does not need to be so blessed.
Indeed, while Christ himself manifestly instituted the matter of Baptism and the Eucharist, he did not so clearly institute the matter of Confirmation. Thus, water, by virtue of the clear use of it made by the Lord, has a certain aptitude toward the perfection of Baptism – and likewise bread and wine for the Eucharist.
However, since neither oil nor chrism were visibly consecrated by Christ, it is quite needful that the Bishop should consecrated these elements for sacramental use.
The interior life of the Apostles
It is well known that the Apostles did not start out perfect. Even after having been called by our Lord, the Apostles were yet beginners and were still learning much. However, they did grow in the interior life unto the age of perfection – and this growth can be marked out by several key moments.
First, each of the Apostles was called to leave the world and follow Christ. This is the first conversion, and the entrance into the interior life. At this point, the Apostles were beginners and tread upon what the mystics call the “purgative way”.
However, there was a great trial and darkness which called the Apostles to a deeper relationship with the Lord. This trial was a true dark night of sense in which they were purified through much suffering. This occurred during the trial and death of our Lord.
At our Savior’s resurrection, the Apostles came through this dark night and entered into the middle way of the proficients. They were not yet perfect, but neither were they beginners. They were in the “illuminative way” or the “way of infused contemplation” (as St. John of the Cross calls it). They remained here for forty days.
These men were plunged into the dark night of the soul when our Savior ascended into heaven. For nine days they remained in this darkness – which entailed both the greatest suffering and the greatest joy. These days were a veritable purgatory on earth, in which the faith of the Apostles was purified of every attachment to worldly wisdom and vanity.
Finally, on the feast of Pentecost, the Apostles received the Holy Spirit and even the graces of Confirmation. This gift led them through the dark night of the soul into the “unitive way” of the perfect. From here on, the Apostles were filled with the Spirit and able to proclaim the Gospel with radical power and freedom.
This enumeration of the interior life of the Apostles is established by St. Thomas Aquinas and St. John of the Cross, among others. It is conveniently laid out by Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange in The Three Conversions in the Interior Life also titled The Three Ways of the Spiritual Life.
Confirmation and the Unitive Way
Considering the grace of Pentecost which is the grace of Confirmation and the role which this played in the interior life of the Apostles, it becomes clear that the sacrament of Confirmation is meant to direct each of the faithful to the way of perfection. The graces of this sacrament are meant to confirm the faith and the life of grace in the soul, which is the essence of the unitive way.
While it is impossible (at least, according to the ordinary means by which God sanctifies souls) to enter into unitive way of the perfect without Confirmation, we do not assert that Confirmation automatically places the soul into the unitive way. No, indeed. Rather, it is most common that those confirmed to not come even to infused contemplation and the illuminative way of the proficients for some time.
However, it should be clear to all that a more profound and regular meditation upon the graces of Confirmation would be a great aid to the soul striving to attain spiritual perfection.