The sacrament of confirmation is represented by a rich array of symbols developed over the centuries, and they help to reveal its meaning and add to its beauty.
Oil. Oil is the essential element of the ritual. It is a distinctive kind of oil — sacred chrism, olive oil lightly perfumed with balsam to give it a sweet-smelling aroma. The oil is blessed by the bishop each year at the chrism Mass. It imparts the gift of the Holy Spirit, seals the recipient in God’s grace, and gives a new, indelible character. The minister dips his right thumb into a small bowl of sacred chrism, raises his oiled thumb, places it on the forehead of the candidate, and with a stroke down and a stroke across, anoints the forehead in the shape of a cross with the words, “Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
The laying on of hands. The laying of hands on the head has represented the conferral of the Holy Spirit from the first generation of the Church. The apostles laid hands on Stephen and six others (Acts 6:6), Peter and John laid hands upon believers in Samaria (Acts 8:17), Ananias laid hands on Paul in Damascus (Acts 9:17), Paul laid hands on disciples in Ephesus (Acts 19:6), and all received the gift of the Holy Spirit. The ritual no longer has a laying on of hands upon each individual confirmand, but rather the bishop, along with any concelebrating priests, extends his hands over all those to be confirmed and offers a blessing prayer to bestow the Holy Spirit.
Dove. A dove is a symbol of the sacrament of confirmation because it represents the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in the form of a dove when he was baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist (Mt 3:16; Mk 1:10; Lk 3:22), and the Holy Spirit descends upon each person who is confirmed.
A flame or a tongue of fire. When the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles on Pentecost, “tongues as of fire parted and came to rest upon each of them” (Acts 2:3). Similarly, tongues as of fire come to rest over the head of every confirmand.
A lamp. A lamp emits light, and light is a symbol of the enlightenment, inspiration, insight and wisdom of the Holy Spirit.
Mitre and staff. The mitre is the liturgical headwear worn by a bishop. It is round and tall with a pointed top on the front and back, as well as two tassels on the back called tappets. The staff is also called a pastoral staff, shepherd’s staff, crosier or crozier. It is the walking stick used by a shepherd, and the bishop is the chief shepherd of the diocese (see Jn 20:15, 16, 17). The symbols of bishop double as the symbols of confirmation because the bishop is the usual minister.
7 and 9. The numbers seven and nine represent the number of gifts (Is 11:2) and fruits (Gal 5:22-23) of the Holy Spirit, and it is common to display other symbols in groups of seven or nine, frequently flames, lamps, the branches of a candelabra or the points on a crown.
Father Van Sloun is pastor of St. Bartholomew in Wayzata. This column is part of an ongoing series on confirmation.
Category: Faith Fundamentals