Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Confirmation catechesis with younger children

In communities where Confirmation is sometimes viewed as the “end” of the road, or “graduation” from religious education, how do we help children and families to understand that this Sacrament is actually a new beginning in the confirmandi’s search for knowledge and understanding of God and his Church?

A most effective approach is to introduce the children to Scripture passages that reveal those moments in sacred history when the Holy Spirit descends and enlivens the hearts of those entrusted with a sacred task. The prayer used to consecrate the Chrism during the Chrism Mass provides an excellent guide to several privileged moments in salvation history, when the Holy Spirit’s intervention sparked new beginnings.
The first event that the prayer recounts is as follows: “In the beginning, at your command,/ the earth produced fruit-bearing trees./ From the fruit of the olive tree/ you have provided us with oil for holy chrism.” Ask the children: Did God have in mind, when he first created the olive tree, that it should provide us with oil to use in Baptism and Confirmation? Isn’t it amazing how God has prepared everything for us, everything that we would need to receive his grace?

The prayer of consecration continues: “The prophet David sang of the life and joy/ that the oil would bring us in the sacraments of your love.” It is particularly beneficial to devote at least one meeting time to a close reading of the Psalms that we use during the Rites of Initiation, concentrating particularly on Psalm 23 and the verse, “You anoint my head with oil”: What does it mean to a sheep to be anointed? Why would a shepherd place oil on a sheep’s head? If the children get stuck, explain the healing and protective properties of oil, as well as how precious and expensive a gift this is, to the children. Why would a shepherd want to protect or heal his sheep? Why would he spare no expense in caring for them? When a sheep is healthy and strong, what can happen? The sheep lives, and lives well? And it can produce wool for the shepherd to use? How is this simple anointing like a parable for what will happen when you receive anointing with chrism, at your Confirmation?

Next, turn to the biblical account of what happens in Genesis 8:6-11, after reading the following lines from the Chrism blessing: “After the avenging flood,/ the dove returning to Noah with an olive branch/ announced your gift of peace./ This was a sign of a greater gift to come.” Explore this moment with the children: Why was it significant that the dove returned with an olive branch in its beak? What was Noah hoping to discover by sending the bird out of the ark? Why does the prayer say that this branch represents God’s “gift of peace”? Is it important that the branch was from an olive tree and not some other tree? Why is the olive tree so important? Do you remember what God had in mind when he first created this special tree? How does the anointing you will receive bring you the gift of peace? What is the source of our peace? Why do Christmas cards sometimes show a dove with an olive branch in its beak? Conclude this reflection on Noah by reading and discussing the following lines of the prayer: “Now the waters of baptism wash away the sins of men,/ and by the anointing with olive oil/ you make us radiant with your joy.” How are the waters of the Flood like the waters of Baptism? What is being washed away? Is this washing enough? What else is needed? Why do we need to be radiant with joy? What lies ahead of us after Confirmation?

The following lines from the Chrism blessing reveal a pattern in God’s way of calling humanity: “At your command,/ Aaron was washed with water,/ and your servant Moses, his brother,/ anointed him priest./ This too foreshadowed greater things to come.” Show the children how this event echoes the last one: First a “washing” and then an “anointing”: was it like this with the Flood, also? Why was Aaron anointed? What was the special task entrusted to him? Did the anointing come at the start of his work as priest, or when it was over? Why would Aaron need to be washed with water and anointed in order to do God’s important work? What is “foreshadowing”? Why would God give us hints and clues about the future? What are these “greater things” that the prayer mentions? We shall see...

Now, we can begin to wonder with the children about whether Jesus also received anointing and why: “After your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,/ asked John for baptism in the waters of Jordan,/ you sent the Spirit upon him/ in the form of a dove/ and by the witness of your own voice/ you declared him to be your only, well-beloved Son./ In this you clearly fulfilled the prophecy of David,/ that Christ would be anointed with the oil of gladness/ beyond his fellow men.” Have the children read the biblical account of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan. Ask them, How is the descent of the dove like an anointing? Explore the meaning of the words “Christ” and “Messiah” with the children. Why should the fact that Jesus is anointed by God be the most essential thing about him? What does it signify? What happened after Jesus’ Baptism in the Jordan? Did his work on earth come to an end? No, the Baptism signified a new beginning, one that was made holy and powerful through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Orienting the children to these particular moments in sacred history will help them to understand that their Confirmation represents a beginning, not an end, in their journey toward Truth.

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Dumbstruck by the Mystery

...our temptation is always to impose our prejudices or our measure on reality -- except when we are faced with a fact that leaves us dumbstruck, and instead of dominating the fact ourselves, we are dominated, overcome by it. If there were no moments of this kind, the Mystery could do anything, but in the end, we would reduce everything to the usual explanation. But not even a Nobel Prize winner can stop himself from being dumbstruck before an absolutely gratuitous gesture. If there were not these moments, we would find answers, explanations, and interpretations to avoid being struck by anything. It is good that some things happen that we cannot dominate, then we have to take them seriously, and this is the great question of philosophy. If the conditions for the possibility of knowledge (see Kant) impose themselves on reality or if there is something that is so powerfully disproportionate that it does not let itself be "grasped" by the conditions of possibility, then the horizon opens. If this were not the case, then we could dominate everything and be in peace, or at least without drama. Instead, not even the intelligence of a Nobel Prize winner could prevent him from coming face-to-face with a fact that made him dumbstruck -- instead of dominating, it was he who was dominated. Here begins the drama, because I am called to answer. It is the drama that unfolds between us and the Mystery, through certain facts, certain moments, in which the Mystery imposes itself with this evidence. These are facts that we cannot put in our pocket, which we cannot reduce to antecedent factors.
-- Julian Carron in "Friends, that is, Witnesses."