Today, I cannot emphasize enough, the importance of what we learn in the readings.
Saul has begun the persecution of Christians in Jerusalem and the fledgling community is scattered. We see this has the opposite effect than Saul intended. The Gospel begins to spread outwards from Jerusalem. It’s amazing how God always can write straight with crooked lines and make good come from bad.
Phillip, one of the Deacons appointed in Acts 6, goes down to Samaria, makes converts and baptizes them. (As an aside remember that Stephen who was listed first has just been martyred for the faith. Phillip was listed second and the narrative now continues with his story. This shows the order in which people are listed is generally not random but has significance). Now Phillip, who had been living with the Apostles in Jerusalem and was undoubtedly instructed by them, would certainly have known how to baptize people but despite this when the Apostles hear of the converts, Peter and John immediately pick up and travel from Jerusalem to Samaria, a distance of approximately 40 miles. Why?
The text tells us that the converts had not yet received the Holy Spirit!
But wait! These are converts; didn’t they get the Holy Spirit when they converted? Wasn’t it the Holy Spirit that caused their conversion in the first place? Notice, there is nothing here about the converts saying the “Sinner’s Prayer” and being saved, once or always, by their faith alone. Something is missing. Further, we know that Baptism conveys the Holy Spirit for we saw it descend upon Jesus at his baptism, we heard Peter preach “baptism now saves you” and we know the Lord would not command baptism if it was a meaningless ineffectual ritual. So we can be very confident that these converts received the Holy Spirit at least twice already (at their conversion and baptism). However, the text tells us that the Holy Spirit is then conveyed to the converts by Apostles by the laying on of hands.
It is so important to understand that the Holy Spirit comes to us in many ways over our lives. He comes to us from prayer, when we ask for faith or conversion. He comes to us in Baptism when we are united to the body of Christ. And He comes to us in the laying on of hands, in the Catholic sacrament of Confirmation.
We see from the text that this authority, to convey the Holy Spirit to converts by the laying on of hands, is not granted to everyone. Despite being a deacon, Philip did not have the authority and that is why the Apostles had to come down from Jerusalem. This act of the Apostles, to go out and confirm what Phillip has done shows that even at the very early stages of the Church there was authority and hierarchy. We see from this text that after one is baptized, one must also be Confirmed. One must also have hands laid on them by someone with authority to do so, by an Apostle. In our modern times this must be done by the successor of an Apostle – a Bishop.
The passage also gives us an insight into the interplay between scripture and tradition. Nowhere in the Bible does Jesus say, ‘after someone is baptized you Apostles must lay hands on them and call down the Holy Spirit to complete their conversion and entrance into the Church.” But we see it happen here in today’s Scripture reading. The tradition of the Church has continued this practice for over 2,000 years. Like “confession” or “purgatory”, you don’t see the word “Confirmation” used in Scripture. But the sacrament of Confirmation has its basis here in Sacred Scripture. Why it is done, what it means, and how to do it are passed down is in sacred tradition. It is a great tragedy that it has been lost to many of our protestant brethren.
What you may ask, is the purpose of Confirmation? Why must we do this?
I remember my own confirmation. I was in my late 20′s. I had never had the sacrament and was getting ready to be married. I remember my wife being there and that her parents came up from VA to NY for the ceremony is the little Church we loved in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn (and still make a special point of going back to whenever we visit NYC). Other than those details I can only tell you only one other thing about that day.
I remember the Bishop, laying hands on my head and saying, “…be sealed in the Holy Spirit”. I remember thinking, that the Bishop performing the ceremony had been ordained a Bishop by having hands laid on his head by a previous Bishop. And back and back and back all the way to Peter and the Apostles and Jesus. An unbroken line of succession stretching back 2,000 years to the Savior. The person whose hands that were touching my head, had been touched by someone who the Lord had physically touched.
And then the Bishop said to the group, “you now have the authority and responsibility to preach the Gospel to the world.” A feeling of panic came over me. “What? Wait! I’m not ready to do that. I mean, I know the basics but I can’t teach this stuff! … Well, I guess I will worry about that when the time comes.” A feeling of calm came over me. “Yep, I guess I figure it out when the time comes.” How am I doing?
BONUS: The text tells us that Simon, the magician, also converted and tried to purchase this power from the Apostles. They of course refuse him. To this day, attempting to purchase blessings or holy objects is known as “Simony”. Further, the fact that Simon seeks to purchase it implies that the Apostles could pass it on this authority to whomever they chose to.