The mystery of chrismation (Gr. ‘unction’) is the second of the three sacraments of initiation, representing a necessary step in the process of catechumens’ integration in the Church. Chrismation is performed by either the bishop or the priest, who, after calling the power of the Holy Spirit upon the newly illumined, or baptised, anoints them with the holy and great myrrh, saying: the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit.
In the life of the newly illumined, chrismation corresponds to the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Christ at the river Jordan (cf. Luke 3:21-22). Also, it corresponds to the very nature of the Church, or the people of God, journeying in history under the Pentecostal dew of the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 2:1-4). As such, the newly baptised become pneumatophores, bearers of the Holy Spirit, experiencing in grace the existential conformity with both Christ and his Church.
Through chrismation the newly baptised receive the energies (cf. St Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ 3:4), gifts or charismata of the Holy Spirit (cf. Isaiah 11:2), being confirmed as members of the priestly people of God (cf. 1 Peter 2:9). The two aspects, the sanctifying action of the Holy Spirit and the ecclesial dimension, appear as a common denominator of the two main ways of administrating chrismation – the laying on of hands (the initial fashion, as performed by the apostles) and the unction. Both ways, the visible sign (the laying of hands and the unction) indicates the ecclesial aspect while the charismata indicate the active presence of the Holy Spirit. Ultimately, the two aspects concur to the realisation of a complete theandric, or divine-human, life (cf. The Life in Christ 3:2) of the newly illumined, within the people of God. By taking further and consciously the spiritual path, of the virtuous life, the horizon of divine participation – in the Holy Spirit, through Christ, to the Father – is open to those receiving chrismation (cf. The Life in Christ 3:5-6).
As already stated, chrismation was performed originally by the apostles through the laying of hands (cf. Acts 8:14-17). Very soon, however, the practice of unction became largely used (as suggested in 1 John 2:20), either because the apostles were unable to attend all those baptised or in order to distinguish chrismation from the sacrament of ordination. St Nicholas Cabasilas considers both ways as efficient: ‘Scripture says that the Spirit was given when the apostles laid hands upon those who had been initiated. Now too the Paraclete comes upon those who are being chrismated’ (The Life in Christ 3:1).
The Orthodox Church administrates the three sacraments of initiation – baptism, chrismation and communion – within the same service (for infants and adults alike), given their existential value, of fully regenerating the inner being of the human persons and their integration in the Church. In turn, the Roman Church separates them for catechetical reasons. Thus, in the Roman rite, confirmation, the equivalent of chrismation, is administrated at the end of the catechetical instruction (when children are about 12 years of age). In line with the Roman practice, some Protestant Churches perform the ceremony of confirmation only for adults and teenagers, but do not consider it a sacrament.
Revd. Doru Costache
Lecturer at St Andrew’s Theological College Patristic Studies