The sacrament of Chrismation was established in apostolic times. In the early Church every newly-baptized Christian received a blessing and the gift of the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands by an apostle or a bishop. The Book of Acts relates how Peter and John laid hands on women from Samaria so that they could receive the Holy Spirit, ‘for it had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus’ (Acts 8:16). In apostolic times, the descent of the Holy Spirit was occasionally accompanied by visible and tangible manifestations of grace: like the apostles at Pentecost, people would begin to speak in unfamiliar tongues, to prophesy and work miracles.
The laying on of hands was a continuation of Pentecost in that it communicated the gifts of the Holy Spirit. In later times, by virtue of the increased number of Christians, it was impossible for everyone to meet a bishop; so the laying on of hands was substituted by Chrismation. In the Orthodox Church Chrismation is administered by a priest, yet the myrrh is prepared by a bishop. Myrrh is boiled from various elements. In contemporary practice only the head of an autocephalous Church (the Patriarch, Metropolitan or Archbishop) has the right to consecrate myrrh, thus conveying the episcopal blessing to all those who become members of the Church.
In the Epistles the gift of the Holy Spirit is sometimes called ‘anointing’ (1 John 2:20; 2 Cor 1:21). In the Old Testament kings were appointed to their realm through anointing. Ordination to the priestly ministry was also performed through Chrismation. However, in the New Testament there is no division between the ‘consecrated’ and the ‘others’: in Christ’s Kingdom all are ‘kings and priests’ (Rev 1:6); a ‘chosen race’; ‘God’s own people’ (1 Peter 2:9); therefore anointing is given to every Christian.
Through anointing we receive the ‘seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit’. As Fr Alexander Schmemann explains, this is not the same as the various ‘gifts’ of the Holy Spirit, but the Holy Spirit Himself, Who is communicated to the person as a gift. Christ spoke of this gift to the disciples at the Last Supper: ‘And I will pray to the Father, and He will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth’ (John 14:16-17). He also said about the Spirit: ‘It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you’ (John 16:7). Christ’s death on the Cross made possible the granting to us of the Holy Spirit. And it is in Christ that we become kings, priests and ‘christs’ (anointed ones), receiving neither the Old Testament priesthood of Aaron, nor the kingdom of Saul, nor the anointing of David, but the New Testament priesthood and the kingdom of Christ. Through Chrismation we become sons of God, for the Holy Spirit is the ‘grace of adoption as sons’.
As with the grace of baptism, the gift of the Holy Spirit, received in Chrismation, is not to be passively accepted, but actively assimilated. It was in this sense that St. Seraphim of Sarov said that the goal of a Christian’s life is the ‘acquisition of the Holy Spirit’. The Divine Spirit is given to us a pledge, yet we still have to acquire Him, make Him our own. The Holy Spirit is to bring forth fruit in us. ‘But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control... If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit’ (Gal 5:22; 25). All of the sacraments have meaning and are for our salvation only when the life of the Christian is in harmony with the gift he has received.