In the film “The Apostle,” Robert Duvall’s character, a Pentecostal preacher, is fond of the slogan, “Holy Ghost filled,” to describe what the humble folk in his congregation should be trying to achieve. It is, of course, what happened to the faithful gathered on the Festival of Pentecost and the great things they achieved as a result are history.
Over the intervening centuries, the results can be fairly described as a little more spotty. While heroes of the Faith have done astounding deeds and the Faith itself has spread indeed to the “uttermost parts” of the world (Acts 1:8), there have also been centuries of sloth, indifference, mission drift, even corruption and all manner of human failings among the Lord’s people . Especially in western Christianity, the awareness of the Holy Spirit among us and cooperation with him in the will and mission of carrying out God’s purpose and sharing his grace among us in his community, has been faint. Despite the official theological commitment to Trinitarian doctrine, actual belief as expressed among the faithful is often most binatarian or less. “God and Jesus” is a phrase heard not infrequently, with no room for the Holy Spirit and serious question about the Incarnation. Ask yourself, for instance, when you last prayed to the Holy Spirit. Prayers to the Father are common and so are prayers to our Lord, but seldom do folks want to converse with the Holy Spirit. While most Christians have a grasp on who the Father is and what his role has been, and can also tell you about Jesus and what he means for their life, the Holy Spirit evokes a vague response.
The failure of the Church to faithfully express the fullness of the Gospel in any given age will produce a heresy or deviation which tries to fill the vacuum, but in so doing distorts and divides Christianity. So goes the theory, in any case. Thus, in the late Middle Ages the Church substituted a purchased or earned righteousness to gain heaven in place of the unmerited grace of God. This failure produced Lutheranism as a correction but in the process, division occurred and ecclesiology was messed up. In the 19th century, the indifference of the Church to the desperate plight of the poor produced Marxism, which advocated for the poor as Jesus did, but in the process, rejected the entire Faith and not just the unfaithful leadership of the time. In more recent times, the failure of the Church to have Trinitarian balance in proclaiming the Holy Spirit as well as the Father and Son produced the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements as corrections. But the Pentecostals and many (although not all) Charismatics have substituted personal experience with the Holy Spirit for the sacramental and eucharistic community actions of Christianity.
In celebrating once again the birth of the Christian community at Pentecost, sparked by the gift of the Holy Spirit as promised by Jesus, we must ask how we can again be “Holy Ghost filled,” as individuals and as a community. Begin with reviewing what Jesus says. “The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”(John 14:26). The Holy Spirit, proceeding from the Father (those who cling to the misconceived Filioque, note Jesus does not agree with you), thus does Gospel and anamnesis among us (teaching and causing us to remember). This means he is not only present when we celebrate Eucharist, but is working through it to teach and remind. When Jesus meets up with the disciples on the evening of Easter Day, he bestows upon them the Holy Spirit and connects this to the passing of his authority to them. Having received the Holy Spirit, they are empowered to forgive and retain sins (John 20:21-23). Thus, the authority given through apostolic succession to absolve and excommunicate is possible because of the presence of the Holy Spirit guiding as we do this. Therefore the Holy Spirit works through the Sacrament of Reconciliation as well as in the Eucharist. For humans to have the power to forgive and retain sins would surely lead to an abuse of authority, given our fallen nature. Only the direction of the Holy Spirit makes it possible for bishops and priests to be accurate in proclaiming according to the “office of the keys.” This harmonizes with Matthew as well (28:18-20), who reports Jesus, noting that all authority belongs to him, directs the apostles to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of” all three persons of the Trinity. The authority of Jesus in evangelism, to bestow God’s grace on all nations, works through baptism, with the presence of the Holy Spirit included, so the apostles and their successors may be able to effectively baptize. All of this is summarized in the Sacrament of Ordination, where we plead “come Holy Spirit” on behalf of the ordinand, that the process in which Jesus’ authority is passed to yet another generation is directed by the Holy Spirit as the bishop, following the words of Jesus in John 20, lays his hands on the ordinand and passes on to him the gift of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit thus works through the four sacraments noted in the previous paragraph. But what about Confirmation, which is practiced in many places in the western Church and is often regarded as a Sacrament as well? It has never been used in the Eastern Church, which tells you it did not exist much, if at all, in the first Christian millennium. Some would equate it with chrismation, which in the Eastern Church is generally used at the time of baptism. However, chrismation does not really have the same meaning as is given to confirmation in the West, and is only administered apart from baptism when adults come into Orthodoxy who are baptized but were not given chrismation at the time of their baptism. In Anglican and Roman practice, although not Lutheran, Confirmation is administered by the bishop (in contrast also to chrismation) and as it developed became seen as the way in which local Christians became part of the catholic church.
Luther saw no purpose in it, and discontinued it. Most other reformers followed his example. In Lutheranism, it was reinstated in the 18th century by the German pietists, but given new meaning. For the pietists, it was a vehicle for those baptized as infants to make a conscious decision that they wished to accept the Christian Faith as their own, somewhat like the “decision for Christ” altar calls of American evangelicals. In the American Episcopal Church, the idea of the bishop confirming you into the catholic church and the idea that you are taking upon yourself the baptismal vows made on your behalf when you were an infant co-existed.
Once the initial fervor of the pietists had passed, however, Confirmation settled in as essentially a rite of passage into adolescent adulthood, gained through a period of instruction in catechism generally considered the conclusion of a child’s need for religious education. Confirmation was also made the gateway to participation in Communion. This is one of the most damaging actions towards both individual children and the Christian community as a whole that could ever be done, because;
1. Among the baptized, forbidding the “bread of life, the medicine of immortality, the cup of salvation” to large numbers of Christians simply on account of their age is beyond discrimination and into child abuse.
2. Only “open and notorious evil livers” (to use the rich phrase of the Prayerbook) and those who have “done any wrong” to their neighbors are to be denied the Eucharist.
3. Making reception of Communion dependent on successfully passing knowledge tests on doctrine, the pre-requisite for Confirmation, completely subverts the meaning of the Eucharist. It is “mysterion,” the heavenly banquet brought to us, inexplicably and inexplicable. Its truth is the most profound depth of knowledge, beyond human comprehension. To reduce its meaning down to some simplistic wooden doctrinal definitions is to profane the most holy life-giving love of God. “The only thought in the mind of a faithful communicant is ‘my God, thou art true, my soul, thou art happy,” as Richard Hooker put it. You cannot fathom it, but you can be fed on it and rejoice in it. The four-year old can not only see this as well as the rest of us, but has the advantage of an awe and wonder of such a marvel, receiving the gifts as Hooker recommends without nitpicky questions about their properties, appearance, manner of administration, and such.
4. Although the “dumbing down” of Christian formation to its current woeful state cannot be denied, attaching Communion reception to any intellectual exercise is a distortion. If you are part of the family (=baptized), you ought to be able to feast at the family Table. Being educated to the furthest limit of your ability in the vast treasure of Christian knowledge is your obligation and privilege. But that is a separate issue from receiving Communion, which belongs equally to the brightest and dumbest in the family of God. “Drink this, all of you,” says our Lord to us. All means all.
The millions among us today who essentially have understood Confirmation as graduation from the Church rather than admission into it surely is witness to how stupid this practice is, as well as how damaging it is. Fortunately, many are coming to see the foolishness in the recent traditions of Confirmation and now offer Communion to all the Faithful, without discriminating on the basis of age and without the prerequisite of Confirmation.
If Confirmation as practiced in the several centuries prior to us has been in error, what should we do with it? One answer in the modern Anglican context is that there seems to be a lack of trust among many in the efficacy of God’s grace acting in baptism. The thought that all people must have a conscious specific experience of conversion and accept the Lord as their Savior in order to be considered Christian, common to fundamentalist and evangelical traditions, has come to have its adherents in Anglicanism as well. Confirmation is often seen by these folks as one vehicle for that personal and conscious acceptance of our Lord, and they also would be reluctant to confirm anyone who did not acknowledge Confirmation as the witness of a previous conversion experience or the vehicle of it .
On the other hand, those of us who understand baptism as the effective, immortal and indelible imposition of God’s unmerited grace upon us, must decide what to do with Confirmation. Because my conversion and salvation do not depend on me, as weird as that may sound to the “me” generation. When testimonies to conversion begin with “I” rather than “God,” as in my experience, they usually do, the unmerited grace of God as the sole cause of any hope for salvation, goes out the window, to be replaced by ego, which you may recall was the same problem Adam and Eve had. Baptism as God’s tool of grace goes out the window as well and becomes little more than a child dedication with water. Confirmation can still be seen as a mark of connection to the catholic church, done by the bishop, who represents our local link to the Christian world. But if the bishop can delegate his authority to preside at the Eucharist and his authority to absolve, could he not also delegate the authority to link with the catholic whole? It is certainly more directly meaningful to bring home that link with a live bishop present, but is it essential and is that what Confirmation is about?
It is not unusual for organizations to have traditions which have outlived their original purpose or were always a little fuzzy, and then to try to find meaning for them rather than simply abolishing them. An example is the March of Dimes after polio was effectively conquered. It was unwilling to say “mission accomplished” and dissolve but instead tried to find new meaning for itself. That is an organizational instinct and it has numerous counterparts in the Church. But if with the Eastern Church and Luther, we simply discontinued Confirmation, would the sky fall? There is a bad answer, that it would weaken the bishop’s control over things. But that is a bad answer because the bishop’s pastoral relation with his flock should not depend on control weapons. A good answer might be that Confirmation, as a voluntary ceremony, might serve for those who want to make a particular witness to Faith and thanksgiving to God. That would be a good thing if ego did not drive it, but it doesn’t need a bishop for it to happen and thanksgiving ought to be woven into daily Christianity (it is, after all, the meaning of Eucharist). The likelihood is that Confirmation will disappear with a whimper, not a bang, as it seems to be less and less common. I see no need to grieve its passing.
Which brings us back to Pentecost. The Holy Spirit has already arrived among us and has no intention of leaving. The Church has thrived for two millennia, surviving persecutions, dismal leadership, heresies, attempted takeovers by worldly rulers, ubiquitous sin, distortions, intrusions by cultural norms foreign to God’s Spirit, greedy and power-hungry abusers of office, all manner of calamity and iniquity. Yet she continues, whereas mighty empires of yore have long since come and gone and the present ones will do the same. There is no explanation of this phenomenon except the presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit. Pentecost is the celebration of this gift of God. Yet just as Easter celebrates the Resurrection, but the latter is with us all the time, so the celebration of Pentecost should remind us of the continuous presence of the Spirit, not simply an annual visit. It would behoove us to pay attention to his presence, so we too might be “Holy Ghost filled.”