Worship is devotion in action. In Christianity devotion takes on many forms. There are specific places, actions, and rituals which are believed by Christians to be meeting places between the divine and human. In this page we will look at how the Beliefs and Teachings, shape the actions and Practices of Christians as they attempt to live their lives in a closer relationship with God.
We will look at the significance of different forms of worship including liturgical, informal, and individual. How they feed into things like the liturgical cycle, pilgrimage, mission, and how the global Christian community, the Church, sees itself relating to the wider world.
As we explored when looking at Christian Beliefs and Teachings Jesus Christ is seen as the ultimate meeting point between God and Humanity. It is unsurprising, therefore, that Christians look to Jesus Christ for guidance on how to live a life in closer communion with God.
One significant message that Christians often draw from the Incarnation, God ‘made flesh’, is that it shows that God accepts the physicality of Creation. Material existence is not beneath God. Our bodies are nothing to be ashamed of. This is also found in the Narrative of Eden when God asks Adam and Eve why they are trying to hide themselves.
The presence of God in the material world opens up the possibility for humanity to draw closer to God through specific physical acts, and in specific physical objects. This idea is the basis for what is called Sacramental Theology.
Christians look to the life and actions of Jesus and seek to emulate the most significant times of union between the divine and human. The number and significance of the sacraments are not agreed upon by different Christian denominations. For example while the Roman Catholic Church recognises seven which are listed below, most Protestant Churches only recognise two, which are in bold.
- Baptism – Ritual cleansing of sin marking a person as part of the Christian community.
- Confirmation – The conscious embrace of the community by the individual who had previously been baptised.
- Eucharist – The commemoration of the sacrifice made by Jesus Christ, bringing the community closer to God.
- Confession – Privately talking to a priest about the sins that the individual has committed, and seeking forgiveness for them.
- Anointing the Sick – Bringing comfort, blessing, and care for those who are sick.
- Holy Orders – Joining the priesthood in any form including monastic life; dedicating your life to God.
- Matrimony – Getting married and starting a family.
These are meant to mark key milestones in the lives of believers. Completing them brings the believer closer to God. Some are drawn directly from the life of Jesus. The two that are nearly universally recognised: Baptism and the Eucharist are meant to parallel the Baptism of Jesus and the Last Supper.
These sacraments can only be performed by a priest, although this is less strictly observed outside of the Catholic Church. Christians are not expected to do all of these. In fact, in the Catholic Church the final two sacraments are mutually incompatible as if you are ordained then you are not allowed to marry. These events can be seen as ways that Christians introduce God into their lives at times of intense significance: both joyful and sad.
The significance of Baptism lies in the cleansing power of water as a symbol, marking the person as ready for a life of service in a loving relationship with God. It comes as part of an acceptance of humanity’s original sin in spoiling creation. Just as, upon Jesus’ baptism, God publicly stated his acceptance and love for Jesus; so through Baptism Christians are publicly marked as part of the community, free from the sin staining humanity and thus ready for a proper relationship with God.
The Eucharist, the giving of Bread and Wine, refers to the Last Supper where Jesus relates his Blood with the Wine and his Body with the Bread. He was communicating that he knew of his coming death, that he saw it as a sacrifice worth making. In the gospel narrative Jesus said that through repeating the use of bread and wine as part of a re-enactment of the supper, he would continue to be present with his followers. As his body and its sacrifice is taken onwards, forming the basis of the community itself. Re-enacting this sacrifice is believed to ensure the presence of Jesus Christ with the community; for Catholics this is taken literally with the wine and bread being transformed into the real blood and body of Christ. There is not universal agreement on this point; but, the Eucharist is seen by most Christians to be the source and summit of Christian life.
In this way, the sacraments are seen as a gift from Jesus, to help guide people in their relationship with God. Protecting them, and making sure they are carried out is seen as one of the principle roles of the Church, especially in Roman Catholic theology.
Alongside this sacramental view of Creation as the public meeting place of humanity and divinity, Christians seek to forge personal relationships with God. This is done, for Christians, through the actions of Prayer.
Prayers can either be formulaic or extempore meaning that they can either follow a set pattern or be made up to suit a particular situation. It is common Christian practice to pray to give thanks before a meal, before falling asleep, or just after waking up in the morning.
The most famous formulaic prayer is undoubtedly the Lord’s Prayer; it runs as follows.
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins
as we forgive those who sin against us.
Save us from the time of trial
and deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours
now and forever. Amen
This is the 1988 ELLC
The Lord’s Prayer is perhaps the greatest example of Christians receiving guidance in how to pray. Popular piety is often channelled into specific actions, often performed at specific times and for specific purposes. A popular practice that finds parallel in other theological traditions across the world is rosary prayers, where a set prayer is said for each bead on a rosary as it is passed through the hand in a near meditative practice.
Other times, places, and situations call for more specific prayers. For example Eucharistic Adoration prayers are aimed at worship of the Body and Blood of Jesus during the Eucharist. At Easter time there are specific prayers for each Station of the Cross that mark Jesus’ final movements before his crucifixion. Finally the Funeral Rites, more common in the Roman Catholic Church, involve a set of prayers that are aimed at preparing a person for their death.
Prayer is understood by many Christians as “the raising of the mind and heart to God” the significance of prayer can be understood in this way. Either by incorporating it into a daily routine, or reaching out at times of heightened emotions, Christians see prayer is a way of inviting God to take part in their lives.
The Liturgical Cycle
Formulaic prayers may occur at any time, but there is a cycle that guides Christian worship throughout the year. This is called the Liturgical Cycle. It is based primarily on the life and works of Jesus Christ, the most important events in the year are commemorations of the most important events in the life of Jesus Christ.
The Liturgical Cycles varies between different groups of Christians, but key dates are universally recognised as significant by all Christians. Easter and Christmas are undoubtedly the most famous Christian Festivals, they have even grown to take on greater significance for people who are not Christian. There are numerous other festivals, some commemorate the lives of Saints, like Peter and Paul, or Francis of Assisi; some commemorate other important events in Christian history, like Ascension Day, the Feast of the Transfiguration, or the Dormition and Assumption of Mary. These Festivals take on different forms and significance in different areas of the world. Some Saints may take on a greater significance in some areas, like St Columba in Britain and Ireland; some might be a unique celebration only found in a particular place, like Meskel in Ethiopia, or Hallowtide in the United States.
It is not only specific times that are important for Christians, but also specific places. The idea of God and humanity meeting at certain points is central to Christian theology. It drives the idea of the Incarnation, as well as Sacramental theology. It also has given birth to multiple different conceptions of what might be called ‘Holy ground’.
For ground, space, to be considered holy for Christians it must be seen as a place where God is present. This could be because of an event that happened there in the past. This drives a lot of Christian pilgrims to travel to modern day Israel and Palestine, the Holy Land.
More commonly, especially outside of the Holy Land, certain places have been built as centers that link the Christian world and have come to house certain items, called relics, and communities, normally monastic.
Relics are items or remains that have a close connection to holy figures; usually saints, but also often items linked to Jesus himself.
Here are just some of the famous sites of Pilgrimage in the Christian world. They vary in importance depending on the group of Christians, but all are recognised as holding a special significance either historically or through the virtue of them housing an important relic or community, or a mixture of these points.
- Walsingham, a town in north Norfolk, England, is home to a medieval Abbey that remains a centre of pilgrimage despite being dissolved by Henry VIII.
- Taizé, is a monastic community in the south of France which welcome people, especially younger people, from across the world to participate in their unique worshipping style.
- Iona, an island off the coast of Scotland, is home to a community established by St Columba.
- Lourdes, a sanctuary in France is a place that many Christians visit to experience healing and miracles.
- Assisi, the birthplace of St Francis, is a town in Italy that is home to a monastic community that traces its history back to the famous saint.
- Rome, the Capital of Italy is also home to the Vatican City, an independent State, the residence of the Pope and the centre of the Roman Catholic World.
Mission comes from the term that means ‘to send out’. Christians interpret themselves as being sent out; the community exists for the purpose of spreading the good news that the life, death, and resurrection of Christ represents. This is tied with the term Evangelism from the greek meaning ‘good news’ and therefore necessarily Church Growth.
This takes on different meanings depending on if the focus is local, national, or global. It also takes on different meaning to different christians. After all, what does it mean to spread the good news? What is the best way of doing so?
The most obvious interpretation is that Christians should go out and talk to as many people as possible, trying to convince them of the truth of their beliefs and bring them to learn more by attending a Church and/or reading the Bible themselves.
Other Christians question not just the effectiveness of such action, but also whether such action is a proper reflection of the teachings of Christ. The Franciscan Monastic order is famously connected to a saying:
‘Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.’
The way to interpret this is to understand that for many Christians, the meaning of mission and evangelism is putting the teachings of Jesus into practice across the world. If the task is to spread the good news of the relationship with God that Christ is seen to epitomise, then there is no better way of doing that that showing the fruits of such a relationship in the actions that you take in your life as a Christian. In this way Christian Mission means living a life that is defined by service and care for those who need it wherever they are found.
The Church in the World
This previous point leads directly into the role that Christians see the Church taking in the wider world. Mission is interpreted as the essential requirement to love our neighbour in concrete ways locally, nationally and globally. The Church, as the body of Christ, (link to previous section on the church) is supposed to take on a role in local community and living practices; healing the sick and caring for the poor and dispossessed in the same way that Jesus did.
This work takes on another dimension when expanded globally. Worldwide, Christians see themselves as taking on the role of advocates for reconciliation, justice, peace and reconciliation, especially for those who are persecuted for whatever reason. Various charities have been set up to perform this role. Below is a short list of some such charitable groups.
Life as a Christian, as with any other Theology, is shown through the way a life is lived. This necessarily includes not just the practices that we explored in previous sections, it is shown in the art that is shared and the stories that are told. These things grow in significance and meaning as time compresses and crystallizes the thoughts and ideas associated with them. This page is a mere overview of the most famous symbols, art, and literature born from the Christian tradition.
Christianity has a history of rich symbolism and imagery, this is reflected in the large amount of Symbols that are used widely across the Christian world. Below are just a select few, their origins and meaning.
- Cross and Crucifix: Undoubtedly the most prevalent of Christian Symbols. The Cross represents the crucifixion of Jesus. The Crucifix is a cross which features Jesus’ body on the Cross. This symbol has a history dating back to the earliest Christian communities. It symbolises the sacrifice that Jesus made, and in that also points to the Love that God has for Creation.
- Alpha and Omega: Alpha and Omega are the first and last letters of the Greek Alphabet. This comes from a direct quotation of Jesus where he says that he is the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.
- Fish: This symbol arose from a time of persecution of Christians. It is actually an acrostic. The Greek for Fish is ἰχθύς, the Greek letters that make it up become a code for a central declaration of Christianity. “Ἰησοῦς Χριστὸς Θεοῦ Υἱὸς Σωτήρ”, (Iēsous Christos Theou Huios Sōtēr), meaning, Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour.
- Symbols of the Four Evangelists:
- Man/Angel – Matthew – The reason for this is the focus in Matthew’s gospel on the Humanity of Jesus. His human ancestry and the significance of the Incarnation.
- Lion – Mark – An animal that symbolises courage and nobility. The reason for this is the focus on the importance of the Resurrection. Lion’s were thought to sleep with their eyes open, this relates directly to Jesus’s courage and conquest of death.
- Bull – Luke – The Bull, a beast of burden, symbolises sacrifice and service. Luke’s gospel is seen to focus on the responsibility and sacrifice that must be taken on by those who follow Christ.
- Eagle – John – The most poetic and abstract of the gospels is rightly represented by the animal that rules the skies. Eagles were thought to be the only animal capable of staring directly into the sun. This reflects the ability of John to look more deeply at the theological significance of what is going on in the gospel narrative.
There are many more symbols, too many to cover here. But, like any tradition, many complex thoughts and ideas are packed into each of these images, and they continue to be touchstones for Christians everywhere.
Paintings, Frescos and drawings, such as the works of Michelangelo or Raphael, are famous for their beauty and sophistication. They are also often steeped in Christian theology. Some depicting scenes from the Biblical narrative, such as the Last Supper. Others explore Christian theology in a more abstract and artistic way, like the Sistine Chapel. These works are historic in their own right. Theology often inspires people to produce works of incredible beauty and significance, Christianity is no exception.
Icons are a fascinating fusion of theology and art, one that is often misunderstood. They represent more than simply Christian artwork. Following on from the idea that God took on physical form, it makes sense to say that God had a face, a face that could be painted. Christian artists, over the years have often been inspired by this idea of being able to capture divinity in a piece of art. This is what an icon is, it is a piece of art that directs the viewer’s gaze, in some small way, onto the face of God.
This is most commonly seen in the many images painted of Jesus. Note that not all images of Jesus are, or even try to be, considered icons. But it also extends to Holy people. Jesus’ mother Mary is a common subject for iconographers. It is also common to see icons of saints. The subject must be a Holy person, because Holy people are those who partake in divinity, and so it is through properly capturing, not their image, but the divinity that they partake in that a piece of work becomes an icon.
The theology that informs this practice is controversial. Especially among Protestant Christianity. The concern comes from the fear of being distracted from God, and worshipping or devoting ourselves to things that are not divine. In other words, the argument is that there is no such thing as an icon, there are only idols. This line of argument has led to numerous points in history where Christians destroyed artworks. The aftermath can still be seen in Churches across Europe.
The Visual arts are also reflected in how Christian places of worship are designed and decorated. This is often done so in a way that reflects Christian beliefs and facilitates worship.
Some of these things are built into the very foundations of Churches. In the Orthodox, Catholic and Anglican traditions, churches have been built with the Altar in the East. This is so that when Christians pray in Church, they do so while facing the Holy Land. This obviously has very strong parallels with the practice of prayer in Christianity’s sibling; Islam. Another facet, especially of older churches, that is often overlooked is that the foundations are usually laid so that the Church itself is cross-shaped. This building tradition goes right back to the most ancient of Churches.
Churches are often decorated in a way that is hoped will facilitate worship. Many stained glass windows have become iconic, but their function is more than being beautiful. They are often designed to give a visual representation of the stories and ideas that should be explored in the church’s service.
At the Centre-front of a church is usually the Altar, this is the focus of services, where the priest and choir, if the Church has one, stay during the service. In order to ensure that what they do is heard from the back of the church, there is usually a lot of thought gone into church architecture that produces great acoustics. This leads us to our next point.
Music is a central component of worship for almost all Christians. Lyrics for music and chanting is found in the Psalms of the Bible, which continue to be used as lyrics for songs of praise. Music that entered the world as Christian Worship music has had an outsized influence on all of Modern Music.
Musical styles as diverse as the classical music of Mozart and Bach to Gospel Music and its influence on Soul and Jazz, all can trace roots back to music used in Christian worship. The history is complex and fascinating, too much so for us to be able to go into detail here. Suffice it to say that for many Christians across the world, the music is a major part of their involvement in the worship and community of a Church. Music, throughout Christian history but especially in the past few hundred years in the West, has been not just a way of bringing worshippers together but also an avenue for engagement with the wider societies that Christians are a part of.
Literature and Storytelling
Christian theology has inspired and continues to inspire a plethora of storytelling in numerous forms. This has a long history. Some of the earliest examples of plays in medieval europe were so called ‘Mystery Plays’ these were performances that depicted stories from the Bible.
Stories from the Bible have been constantly revisited in perhaps every form of writing. But Christian literature and storytelling is not limited to repeating the stories from the Bible. Many artists, working in many artforms, explore questions and experiences that are central to Christian theology.
There are some who would want to ring fence some art as explicitly Christian; but, being overly concerned about labels when it comes to art only ever ends up hurting the art. Inspiration itself is a word taken from Christian Theology, meaning to be taken over by the Spirit, to have God work through you. The themes that run throughout Christian Theology, of Love, self-sacrifice, Guilt, Reconciliation and Forgiveness; these are themes that constantly present in art. Against this backdrop, arguing over how a piece of art should be classified, perhaps misses the point.
As has hopefully become clear, the truth that Christians profess can not be reduced to a label, the message has always been communicated through storytelling, like all theology. This continues to be the case in art coming from across the world.
The story at the heart of Christianity has had a major impact on world events. In our next and final page we will look at the history of Christianity as a tradition; its origins, how it has evolved, and what it might look like in the future.