Sunday, April 29, 2007
The White-Robed Saints of Rev. 7 and Confirmation Sunday
I couldn't resist using the Rev. 7 epistle reading today. It was Confirmation Sunday and the related symbolism was just too tempting: white-robed saints and the blood of the Lamb. As many Lutherans know, Confirmation Sunday is not complete without the confirmands processing in wearing white robes and red flowers. Unfortunately the robes are too often of the "graduation" type, being rented from some collegiate cap and gown provider. This only symbolically reinforces the misconception among Lutheran youth that confirmation equals graduation.
In my parish they use the alternate "poncho" style robe that is sold in some church supply catalogues. Unbeknownst to me, one of the children asked the retired pastor assisting me why they had to wear those robes. And unbeknownst to him was that my sermon was intending to answer that very question. Now I don't know the particular history of the confirmation robe. In my limited reading prior to today I didn't see any helpful history on this topic. However, I do know that the white robe in Baptism is a significant part of the historic rite, going back to the Early Church of the first centuries. It is symbolic of the robe of righteousness in Christ mentioned in scripture (Isaiah 61:10; Gal. 3:27). I would imagine that the robe in confirmation is an extension of this robe.
At any rate it was a good "object lesson" in preaching on Rev. 7. And it was a good way to help them appreciate that the foundation and essence of confirmation for Lutherans is all about Baptism. Today we stand as those "clothed in Christ" through Baptism. This is the source of our righteousness before the holy God. It is not of ourselves, it is a gift of God. Thus, we are here today to witness to that truth, not to anything we have done.
Which is a point that needs to be made among Lutherans still convinced that confirmation is the "renewing of our baptismal vows." First of all we do not "renew" that which God has created and which He himself continually renews by His grace. He makes all things new, not us. Secondly, what is a "baptismal vow"? This sounds Reformed to me, where Baptism becomes Law - something I must do, not Gospel - something God does in and through His Son. True, confirmands promise fidelity and faithfulness to the confession and truth of the church. But there was no "vow" made by the infant as he was baptised. He believed, but "not by [his] own reason or strength, but the Holy Spirit has called [him] by the Gospel..." If there is a vow of any kind, it is God's. He pledges his grace and love on our behalf.
Like many pastors I struggle with confirmation. Despite what we say the inevitable happens - children begin that day to end their involvement in the church. Part of the problem lies in how we have pictured their place in the Kingdom. Too often we paint it in soft and subdued colors, or in bright vibrant and exciting shades. Yet the darker hues of suffering and death we avoid. Yet these white-robed saints are those who have passed through the "great suffering" (sorry, I avoided the word "tribulation" because of some wrong interpretations here). They have denied themselves, taken up their crosses and followed. So the red in those flowers, I reminded them, is the red of blood - the blood of martyrs and suffering for the faith. They did promise to remain faithful even to the point of death. It's in the rite, even if many young people recite the words with hardly a thought as to what it could possibly mean.
Confirmation has a lot of pietistic baggage that complicates its usefulness in the church. Luther initially abandoned the rite out of reaction to what he perceived were its abuses in the church of his day. How many pastors today are tempted to do the same! Still, it's a venerated tradition that is not likely to disappear any time soon. So, let's take the opportunity to use this occasion to direct their attention to the blessings of their Baptism, which Christians too seldom contemplate. The rite (in Lutheran Worship), to its credit, assists this well. We simply need to "connect the dots" and let them see where God is truly at work.