I love that this fell in for this week because I’m heading off on a retreat with my confirmands once I leave work—mixed feelings about that because I’m tired as all get out from not having slept well and having a lot on my mind and in my life and Lord, but I don’t want to deal with kids who can’t be bothered to actually, you know, care. But I also know that these things present amazing possibilities for the kids (and us adults, to be sure!) to think about things in new ways, to see new things, to grow and change and discover.
And that’s what confirmation is. In the Catholic Church, this is one of the three Sacraments of Initiation (along with baptism and the Eucharist); it didn’t make it into the Holy Pair for us non-Catholics because it doesn’t explicitly show up anywhere in the Bible (sola scriptura, you know) but it’s still important in a lot of the mainstream denominations who do infant (rather than adult) baptisms. It’s sort of baptism’s sequel, The Return of the Spirit.
Confirmation is the cognizant commitment to the Christian life. For the denominations who only do adult baptism it’s part of that rite and so doesn’t merit its own consideration, but for the paedobaptists (didn’t know you’d be getting your Greek in today, did you?) there’s no way that the baptizee can make these kinds of promises. The parents (grandparents/godparents/foster parents/whatever) make the promises on behalf of the kid: we promise that we believe in one God and will raise the kid to know Who God is, we reject the temptations of Satan and will teach him/her to do the same, we will remain loyal to Christ and His Church and will nuture this kid in this family of faith, etc. Whether the parentals actually follow through on these promises is kind of their problem (well, and that of the whole church, because in most denominations there’s a line in the baptismal rite for the congregation to bind themselves to this new creation), but confirmation is when that kid gets to say these things for him/herself.
So baptism has to come first (which is really fun when a kid hasn’t been baptized before so we do that and then about five minutes later have to say as part of the confirmation liturgy “remember your baptism”), but baptism isn’t the end of the story. Neither is confirmation, for that matter, which is hard to get both kids and their parents to understand. Confirmation isn’t the finish line of faith—it’s the start, it’s the moment when you step into your own as an adult (in the sense that no one is living this for you now). It’s a pretty intense thing, especially when it’s presented as a true choice.
My church goes to some lengths to ensure that the kids going through the two-year-long process (7th and 8th grade) of confirmation understand that it is totally acceptable for them to say, at the end, “No thanks, this isn’t for me” and not become a member of the church or get confirmed. I have been part of churches that did not make that effort, continuing to push kids forward through the ceremony as though it were just another graduation that you had to do where you memorize some stuff and suddenly you’re a church member. That cheapens this sacrament, I think, even though most wouldn’t consider it a sacrament. But it is; it is a sacred thing for a person to say either “I want to know more about this faith and will myself claim God as my God even though I don’t completely understand that” or “I don’t see these beliefs in myself and do not wish to swear to stuff with which I don’t agree.” Both of these are holy things because both of these are autonomous moments of choice.
One of the really big Theological Things in Christianity is this idea of Free Will (well, unless you’re a Calvinist). This can get a bit tetchy because of the whole omniscient-and-all-powerful-God thing, but for me I really love that there is this moment built right into the Christian life that says our choice matters. We are not only encouraged but mandated to make a choice about where we stand with God—and that’s not to say that we can’t change our minds either direction later (trust me, our understanding of God has to be mutable or it would never work), but it is to say that we have to make a public stand. For all the noise of 21st-century America, we don’t actually like to take public stands all that often. And trying to do so when you’re 13? Yeah, right! You don’t even want to take a public stand on whether or not you like your own hair at that age, let alone how you understand a faith connected to organized religion. So surely this is a special kind of torture that we enact on poor kids.
But it’s not. “Tweens,” as they’re now called, have no voice anywhere. They are just old enough to realize that they have thoughts that may not match the adults around them or even their friends, but no one wants to hear them. They have no rights anywhere and are constantly told how whiny, ungrateful, lazy, and moody they are—I know this because I have said these things to my confirmands who most certainly have been all four of those.
The Church—that monolithic scary thing that everyone says is dying because apparently no one has ever met a caterpillar—takes this time to give kids the space to say what they believe about God, which is kind of the most important thing. We adults have done what we can to bring them this far; now it’s their turn to own who they are as children of the Spirit or own that God won’t smite them if they walk away.
Yeah, that’s pretty sacred.
Do not let anyone look down on you because you are young, but be an example for other believers in your speech, behavior, love, faithfulness, and purity. (1 Timothy 4:12, ISV)