Christianity: Practices

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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 on the previous page, 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.

Sacraments

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. 

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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.

Prayer

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.

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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

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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.

Pilgrimage

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.

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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

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.

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