Sealed with the Spirit

AT THE BEGINNING OF THIS SECTION from 2 Corinthians read at today’s Divine Liturgy we read, “Now He who establishes us with you in Christ and has anointed us is God, who also has sealed us and given us the Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee” (2 Corinthians 1:21-22). To what is he referring?

How are we anointed and given the Holy Spirit? What does it mean to “be sealed”? How is the Spirit a “guarantee”?

What is a Seal?

For most of Western history people did not have the self-stick envelopes we do today. Letters and documents were sealed with hot wax. Usually a stick of wax was heated and allowed to drip onto the document to close it. Then a sign such as the image on a ring was dipped into the wax before it hardened.
This served two functions: to insure that the missive could not be opened by just anyone and to authenticate it as coming from the person whose image was used.

Because the seal was a material substance placed upon a document, a material substance came to be used to represent the Holy Spirit as the seal on our relationship with God. This substance was not wax, but an especially fragrant ointment called chrism or myron, a rich blend of oils and aromatic spices. Prepared and blessed by bishops, it is then distributed to their churches for local use.

The newly-baptized are marked with chrism to show that they are “in Christ,” united to Him in His death and resurrection through baptism, and have the Holy Spirit dwelling in them. All who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ, we sing, echoing St Paul (Galatians 3:27). This sealing we have come to call chrismation, the anointing with Chrism.

Although this terminology is not regularly employed in the West, Pope John Paul II used it to describe this mystery when addressing pilgrims in 1998: “The seal of the Holy Spirit therefore signifies and brings about the disciple’s total belonging to Jesus Christ, his being always at the latter’s service in the Church, and at the same time it implies the promise of divine protection in the trials he will have to endure to witness to his faith in the world.”

How is the Spirit a Guarantee?

In the New Testament we find the Holy Spirit bestowed in a number of ways. The Father bestows the Spirit on Christ in the form of a dove at His Baptism and on the apostles in the form of fiery tongues at Pentecost. Christ bestowed the Spirit by His word alone on the evening of His resurrection. In Acts 10 we read that the Spirit descended upon Cornelius and his household even before they were baptized, without any human intervention.

By and large, however, this bestowal of the Spirit comes about after baptism as a “sign” or “guarantee” that the Lord is truly working in the heart if the one so anointed. What has happened here is miraculous, it affirms, and it is of God.

Anointing – an Ancient Rite

Anointing with this special oil – chrism or myron – came to be considered the sign of being set apart very early in the history of Israel. The first chrism was made by the prophet and Lawgiver, Moses, according to directions given him by God (Exodus 38:25 LXX), and used by him to consecrate the Tabernacle and anoint Aaron for the service of the High Priest. All subsequent prophets, high priests and kings over Israel were likewise chrismated, as was anything or anyone reserved exclusively to the service of God or to a life of holiness. At a certain point all priests were anointed in a similar way, setting them apart for the service of God.

In Christ these first anointings given under the old Law was fulfilled: “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 10:38). He is the one truly anointed – set apart – for the mystery of salvation, but His anointing is invisible – done by the Holy Spirit in the mystery of the Trinity.

Contemporary scholars have noted that all the material anointings with oil in Jewish practice are paralleled in the New Testament Church. As Moses consecrated with holy oil the Tabernacle in which the tablets of the old Law were kept, so also the Christian temple is sanctified with Chrism. The walls, the holy table, the sacred vessels are consecrated in this way. When a hierarch consecrates antimensia (the principal cloth on the holy table) and even icons he does it by anointing them with chrism.

The Anointing of Priests

In the Western Church candidates for holy orders are anointed with chrism, recalling the anointing of priests in the Old Testament. In the Byzantine Church this is not done; instead it is in chrismation that all of us are anointed with chrism to be members of the royal priesthood. When the chrism is blessed the hierarch says this prayer:

“By the coming of Your holy and adorable Spirit, O Lord, make of it a garment of incorruptibility, a perfect seal that imprints on those who receive Your divine bath the right to bear Your godly Name and that of Your only-begotten Son and Your Holy Spirit so as to be known as members of Your family… becoming Your own people, Your royal priesthood, Your holy nation stamped with the seal of Your spotless chrism.”

The prayer lists three effects of this anointing:

  1. The right to bear the name Christian – we are “other Christs” (“other anointed ones”).
  2. We are members of God’s family, His holy people.
  3. We are His royal priesthood, set apart to lead and represent the world in the worship of its Creator.

A Visible Mark

In the Church’s prayers this anointing is described as a visible mark, or even as a garment, highlighting its visible character. When any of the above items are anointed, a visible mark is left: the sign of the cross, declaring it sanctified. When a person is anointed with the sign of the cross, the same is true: a visible mark is left. This too is in imitation of Old Testament practice. The high priest was anointed with the Hebrew latter tav. Studies have shown that this letter in the time the Biblical text was first written was in the form of a transverse cross, somewhat like our letter X. This mark was also inscribed on the plaque the high priest wore.

Sometimes, at the baptism of infants, we see the newly-baptized then dressed in a cute little suit or fancy white dress. The color is right but the cut is wrong! The white garment given at this mystery is nothing other than the white robe worn by clergy in the altar: the stikharion. It is the basic garment of the priesthood worn by servers and clergy of every order. That it is given at chrismation reminds us that we all share in the common priesthood of the faithful, able to join together with others in the Church to offer the mystical sacrifice in union with our Great High Priest, the Lord Jesus.