Words on the Word


Song of Songs 8.6-7: Set me as a seal upon your heart!
John 16.12-16: The Spirit of Truth will guide you.

Dear candidates for confirmation,

When today you receive the sacrament of confirmation, I draw a cross on the forehead of each of you with sacred chrism, the same oil used for the consecration of priests. While I anoint you I pray on behalf of the Church: ‘Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit’.

What does it mean to receive a seal? In ordinary speech, the word ‘seal’ makes us think of shutting, of closing. We talk of sealing a confidential letter, so that no one except the addressee can peak at it; we talk of sealing bathroom tiles so that moisture is kept out of walls and floors. if someone asks us to keep a secret, we might say: ‘My lips are sealed’. That gives assurance that we are not going to blabber.

When we are confirmed, the seal stands for something else. The sacrament does not shut, but opens; it is not about creating division but about grounding in essentials.

What is a seal, in fact? A seal is like a signature. A seal shows where a thing comes from, its provenance. It is an old custom for rulers to carry a signet ring by way of a seal. The ring’s surface is inscribed with the ruler’s arms and serves as a stamp.  When a really important document is issued, it is stamped with the seal of the ring in a splodge of melted wax. That gives assurance that the document is genuine. A seal represents the person who rightly owns it. You may have heard of an impressive ritual that takes place on the death of a pope? A senior cardinal is charged to smash the dead pope’s signet ring with a hammer. The pope has made his last utterance. His seal no longer serves a purpose. No one else is to be given the chance to use it for forgeries.

A seal is a mark of origin also in more everyday circumstances. A potter has his own personal seal. He uses it to stamp all the things he makes — his vases, pots, and mugs — before they are burned. That way we know where these objects came from, we know who made them.

When you receive the Spirit’s seal today, it is by way of a certificate of authenticity. It is God himself who, through the Church, sets his seal on you and says to each by name: ‘You have gone forth from my hand; you are a masterpiece; you have a perfection that is uniquely yours, which is only waiting to be realised; I have created you in love, with a purpose — there is a task waiting for you.’

The confirmation that takes place is bilateral. God confirms his fidelity to each of you. It is mysterious, when you think of it: God is ‘Creator of heaven and earth’. He holds in his hand a universe so immense that we cannot adequately form an idea of it. At the same time he sets his seal on each person as a mark of recognition. You are not just anyone. You are you — known, wanted, and loved in your deepest truth. Let that knowledge be a source of courage and security now and always.

You also confirm something important: you say ‘Yes!’ to your origin. To be a child of God is to be free. God does not foist himself on anyone. Today you declare that you want to be his and to receive the gift, the task he gives you. You stake a course for your life. You are given wind in your sails.

God’s ‘seal’ is the Holy Spirit. In the world we live in, it isn’t easy to talk about spiritual realities. I am sure you have met this challenge already. Society functions as if everything were for sale, as if everything could be bought. We are forever talking about getting things. People get a job, a partner, a lager salary — these days there is even talk of ‘getting children’. By all means, we can get many nice things. But it isn’t at the end of the day what we get, stuff we order, that makes us happy. True happiness is more likely to come our way when we receive and are given something we had not dared to expect.

I hope each of you knows the happiness of receiving a real friend, for friendship is given, it isn’t something we can get. I hope you know the happiness of being seen in truth without being judged. I hope you know the happiness of being able to give of yourself, of your abilities. That kind of experience allows us to see what it means that we are spiritual beings. We realise that ‘spirit’ doesn’t stand for something approximate and vague, but for something real and concrete. And so we come to discover, little by little, who God is, he who is Spirit absolutely.

Today’s readings proclaim that we know God as love and truth. Love and truth belong together. Love is more than a feeling, more than physical passion. Love is a force that lives in the depth of us, a force stronger than death, that cannot be bought — a longing for life so intense that it may at times seem to be more than we can endure.

When you find that nothing you possess, nothing that surrounds you, is enough, remember that what you are meeting is not just your own limits; you are perceiving the beginning of God’s unlimitedness. That kind of experience is an implicit prayer. Remember that you bear the Spirit’s seal, that you are more than flesh and blood. That is your deepest truth.

You receive the seal in the form of a cross. On the cross our Lord Jesus Christ carried all that is human through death into life. Nothing in us, nothing about us is hopeless. That is the message of Easter.

My friends, today you are confirmed for life! Live, then, in accordance with your origin, live by the seal you receive. That way your life will have a beautiful meaning, it will have a goal.

In Jesus’s name, Amen.


Pope Benedict XVI’s signet ring – “The Fisherman’s Ring”. Photo from the Encyclopaedia Britannica.