The Mysteries of the Church allow us to participate in the energies of God. Aside from the Mystery of the Holy Eucharist, perhaps the two other most well-known are Baptism and Chrismation. In previous posts, we explored what actually happens during Baptism and how we can communicate this to others. In this post, we turn our attention to the Orthodox Church’s Sacrament of Chrismation, our personal participation in the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
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What is Holy Chrismation?
In the Mystery of Chrismation (Gr. chrismatis, “anointing”), the newly baptized Orthodox Christian receives the Holy Spirit through anointing with oil by the bishop or priest. From the earliest times, the Church practiced Holy Chrismation immediately following Baptism. This same practice held, whether the newly baptized was an adult or an infant. Western churches (like Roman Catholics and Anglicans), in contrast, usually reserve Baptism and Chrismation for those who reach “the age of reason”.
Chrismation is an extension of Pentecost, the day on which the Holy Spirit was poured out on the Apostles. Through this Mystery, an individual becomes a layperson—a member of the laos, the people of God. Bishop Kallistos Ware explains: “Through Chrismation every member of the Church becomes a prophet, and receives a share in the royal priesthood of Christ; all Christians alike, because they are chrismated, are called to act as conscious witnesses to the Truth. ‘You have an anointing (chrisma) from the Holy One, and know all things’ (1 John 2:20).”
What happens during Chrismation?
During Chrismation, the priest anoints the newly baptized Christian with chrism, or holy oil (Gk. myron). The myron is a mixture of forty sweet-smelling substances (a remembrance of the 40 days Christ fasted) and pure olive oil. The priest anoints in the sign of the cross on the Christian’s forehead, eyes, nostrils, mouth, ears, chest, hands and feet. Each time, the priest says, “The Seal and Gift of the Holy Spirit.” The standard practice is to administer Chrismation together with Baptism. However, in some cases, Chrismation alone can receive converts to Orthodoxy through the exercise of oikonomia.
We see the roots of this Sacrament in both the Old and New Testaments (OT and NT, respectively). Moreover, we see their importance shine on the day of Pentecost.
Promises of the Holy Spirit from the Old Testament
In his sermon on Pentecost, Saint Peter quotes the well-known prophecy of Joel: “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh” (Acts 2:17, Joel 2:28). This is a significant promise; under the Old Covenant, only a few received the gift of the Holy Spirit – the patriarchs, the prophets, some of the judges, and certain leaders of Israel. Joel, however, prophesied that the Spirit would be given to all God’s people, in “all flesh”. We see the fulfillment of this prophecy on Pentecost.
Other OT prophets, including Jeremiah (Jer. 31:31-34) and Ezekiel (Ezek. 36:25-27), also speak of this promise. In fact, the passage from Ezekiel ties together beautifully the Water and the Spirit in a prophetic vision of Holy Baptism and Chrismation.
Christ promises the Holy Spirit
Our Lord Jesus Christ repeatedly promises the gift of His Spirit to His disciples in the New Testament. Early in His public ministry, He says, “‘If anyone thirst, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’ But this he spoke concerning the holy spirit” (John 7:37-39). Jesus also says, “I will pray the Father and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever” (John 14:16).
Moreover, Christ promised the Holy Spirit would reveal Truth to the Church: “When He, the Spirit of Truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you” (John 16:13-14). Jesus says the Holy Spirit will bring glory to Christ. Therefore, only acts that bring glory to God are truly from the Spirit.
Christ’s last words before His Ascension include a promise, that His disciples would soon be baptized with the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5). And He fulfills His word ten days later on the Day of Pentecost.
How is the Holy Spirit given to us?
The people who heard Peter speak at Pentecost asked him how they might receive salvation. He answered, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). We repent and turn from our sins toward Christ. Then, we are baptized and given the “gift of the Holy Spirit” through anointing in Chrismation. That practice has never changed.
For example, in Acts 8, Phillip preached in Samaria, where many believed and were baptized (Acts 8:12). The apostles came and later confirmed these new believers with the gift of the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands (Acts 8:14-17). Here we see explicitly the sacrament of Chrismation following Holy Baptism, as is the practice of the Church. In yet another instance, the Apostle Paul meets some disciples of John the Baptist who were absent when Peter spoke at Pentecost. According to Scripture, they believed in Christ, “were baptized and “the Holy Spirit came upon them” (Acts 19:5-6), again through the laying on of hands by an apostle (whose successors are the bishops, and by extension, the priests).
Therefore, the Sacrament of Chrismation is the valid means by which those who believe in Christ initially receive the Holy Spirit. The promise of God includes both our union with Christ in Holy Baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit at Chrismation. One without the other is utterly meaningless.
In summary, Chrismation is a beautiful Mystery that those in Christ’s Church have the gift of experiencing. In Orthodoxy, we both baptize and chrismate infants and adults. During this Sacrament, each individual receives the Seal of the Gift of the Holy Spirit, and no longer has the devil dwelling within himself or herself. Now, he can only influence him or her from without. Praise be to God!
Read More: 7 Sacraments in the Orthodox Church >>
IF we receive the Gift of the Holy Spirit in Chrismation, why do we continue to pray “O Heavely King…” asking Him “…to come and abide in us..?” Likewise, throughout the Divine Liturgy we ask for the “gift of the Holy Spirit”?
Then there is the teaching of St. Symeon the New Theologian regarding the “Baptism of the Holy Spirit”. How do you explain the supposed discrepancy?
Christ is Risen! There is no discrepancy here. We would both agree that sin distances us from God, and therefore also from the grace of the Holy Spirit. Because we are sinners, the gift of the Holy Spirit, while initially given to us in Chrismation, falls away from us. This is through no fault of the Holy Spirit (meaning He does not withdraw Himself…rather we withdraw and turn away from Him). This is why we pray for Him to come and abide in us continually. It is our fallen will, our propensity to sin, that distances Him from us and disallows Him to live within us as He should. God bless.