Appreciating that individuals and cultures express their beliefs and values through many different forms.
The principle stories for Christianity originate in the New Testament, predominantly in the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke (with Acts) and John. The main theological ideas are found in the epistles of St Paul. Christians often refer initially to stories in the gospel of Luke. As these have an implicit universalistic theology, along with references to gentiles and women. Luke also contains the birth narratives, parables, teaching on the Kingdom of God and a succinct account of the events leading up to the death and resurrection of Jesus. Luke’s second work, the Acts of the Apostles, completes Luke’s theological understanding of the ‘Jesus event’ through the delayed parousia. A set of Jesus’ main teachings and the Lord’s Prayer are explained in Matthew’s Gospel in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). However, to gain a fuller understanding of the way the early church came to understand Jesus’ teaching, the letters of Paul, particularly Romans, require consideration.
These accounts are sacred as they contain the essence of the Christian faith. The relationship of Jesus with God, Jesus’ understanding of the way humans can gain access to God through prayer and the means by which unconditional love overcomes death, are all part of the core Christian stories.
Although some Christian events such as the nativity stories have become secularised in the western world, the manner in which they continue to create awe, wonder and commitment in both Christians and non-Christians alike, demonstrates the power these narratives continue to hold.
Stories form a central part in the Christian faith. Children learn the main events in infancy, in the form of picture books and oral tradition. Jesus taught using stories and this tradition has continued through history. Christian values such as treating everyone with respect and helping those around you are introduced through story-telling. While some stories are clearly more popular than others, the central themes remain the same.
Over time, Christian tales has been subject to an increasing degree of elaboration and interpretation. This is due in part to the use of oral tradition. However, it also occurred because of the element the author wished to emphasise for his audience. This accounts for the fact there are four gospels, rather than one. Each of the four gospel writers was using the material before him to mould a theology. It is therefore important for Christians to understand that there are levels of interpretation in the stories which are central to their faith.
A Christian looks towards the teaching of Jesus for inspiration. It is through these teachings, and the stories they are within, that Christians find their ‘template for action’ and through which their beliefs are channelled.
In a time when literacy was limited it was inevitable that symbolism in art and architecture would develop in order to convey depth and meaning to religious stories. The writers of the Gospels themselves became symbolic characters represented in churches St Luke as an ox, St Mark a lion, St Matthew a man, St John an eagle. Architecture of churches and cathedrals developed symbolic structure, such as the spire representing a finger pointing heavenward, the footprint of the cathedral based on the cross and the altar a place of sacrifice as well as a table for eating the Lord’s meal. Symbolism permeates all aspects of religious life, from words and phrases through to buildings. Even clothing worn by clergy, the materials used in making vestments and chalices, altar cloths and stained glass windows are enhanced by the symbolic themes accorded them.
Religious symbolism permeates all aspects of the religious life. For Christians, symbolism is in use in devotional practice such as genuflection or ‘crossing’, in acts of worship in the liturgy, even in the architectural design of the building, the church, chapel or cathedral,. Christian symbolism is implicitly apparent in the art of stained glass windows, the poetry of hymns, the music of an oratorio. Today Christians often wear symbols as personal reminders or as a public witness of their faith. Most popular symbols include the cross and the fish.
Symbolism enables both Christians and the secular world to recognise the presence of Christianity in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. Whether this is by an individual who chooses to wear a cross around his or her neck, a fish placed on the boot of the car, the dominant symbolic presence of a parish church or the distinctive clothing of the clergy, all these things aid the easy identification of a Christian presence.
The cross is the principle symbol by which Christianity is now recognised. It reflects the central belief of the sacrifice and death of Jesus of Nazareth. Over time, the cross has been altered by different denominations to reflect their own traditions. However, it is likely that the earliest Christian symbol (dating from the 2nd century CE) was in fact, the fish, derived from the acrostic ICTHUS in Greek meaning ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour’.
Other symbols are visible through literature. Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ and CS Lewis’ ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ are explicit in their use of symbolism to convey the Christian message of salvation. Many other writers, such as Evelyn Waugh, use implicit symbolism. This is a common pattern in all areas of art, music and literature. Study of the nature of symbolism enables the reader to gain new insights into the Christian faith.
The language of devotions in worship and theology often carries a meaning of a symbolic rather than a literal nature. This is most apparent, for many Christians, in the rich language of the Eucharist. A priest in the Anglican tradition says, ‘Take eat, this is my body’ and ‘Drink you all of this, for this is my blood’ not in a literal sense but in a mystical way, affirming the life-changing nature of the Kingdom of God which is seen in the body of the church.
Symbolism is therefore a useful tool that allows a Christian to gain insights and understanding into their faith which is a mystery. In many respects, symbolism is a concrete and picturesque manifestation of belief, and provides a useful structure around which belief can be hung for expressing that which cannot fully be expressed in everyday language.
When a Christian bows before the cross, or kneels in the pew for prayer, or genuflects at the blessing, or holds his or her hands up to receive the blessing of the Holy Spirit, symbolic expressions of belief are being made, and the direct relationship between belief, expression and action are formed indicating belief in an all-powerful God who is Trinity and who sends blessings on His children.
Francis Bacon in modern times is recognised as one of the greatest of all modern religious artists expressing the angst, alienation and yet desire that humans have for the love of God. Throughout the last two thousand years artists, musicians, composers, have used symbolic representation in their works to express stories from the scriptures, or aspects of God and his creation.
The symbolic aspects of artefacts and the architecture of a building for Christians of all denominations reflect their belief about their faith. Christians would maintain that the beauty and grandeur of a church or a cathedral has the ability to create a sense of wonder or awe. Alongside the worship these places encourage community, commitment to the faith can be strengthened and a sense of the closeness of God, as Creator and Father, can be heightened. Thus a sense of God’s presence, of sanctity and prayer is often associated with such a place of worship.
The architecture of a church is influenced by the beliefs of Christians. It is often shaped as a cross from an aerial perspective, and has high spires and arches which reach up to heaven. Since the altar is symbolic of the death of Jesus, and the table for the central act of worship is found at the front of the church, so therefore the pews must face in that direction. Christians believe that to pray on their knees is important as a sign of respect, so pews have kneelers to make this more convenient.
Church buildings such as King’s College in Cambridge or St Paul’s Cathedral in London are symbolic of the heavenly majesty of God who dwells therein. Stained glass created by Burne-Jones, tapestry by Sutherland, reflect a symbolism that encourages the Christian to look more deeply at the story of the image as well as to look more deeply at the impact it has upon them.
In the Church of England or Anglican community, churches can be found in all parishes in the country. Roman Catholic churches are fewer in number in the UK but also have traditional boundaries. A church is a ‘sacred space’ where God is worshipped and where, it is believed, God comes closer to humans and humans are able to come closer to God. The main function of a church is thus to offer prayer to God, through the example of Jesus Christ and the working of the Holy Spirit. The church is the main place of worship for the Christian community. The traditional plan for a church is the nave for the congregation, the chancel where the priest officiates, and the sanctuary which contains the altar. Within the church are numerous artefacts and symbols that aid worship, devotions and practice. The font, the altar, the crucifix and cross, candles, stained glass windows, pulpit and lectern, all have symbolic and practical uses.
A chapel is a place of worship in the Christian tradition belonging to non-conformist groups such as the Methodist Church, the United Reformed Church, and the Baptist Church (the word is also used for individual parts of larger churches). Most non-conformist chapels are less ornate but have similar features and artefacts to a parish church, although they often place more emphasis on the pulpit and the preaching of God’s Word.
A Cathedral is the central church of a diocese which is the ‘Seat’ of the bishop . There are 42 dioceses in England, each having a cathedral in the main town or city of the diocese.
Christian worship is ‘congregational’. It developed out of Jewish worship practice which had been congregational for centuries. Alongside this, by suggesting in Matthew 18:20, (For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.) Jesus lays down a pattern for corporate worship. Sunday is also the traditional day of corporate worship for Christians. This is a remembrance that Jesus is believed by Christians to have risen from the dead on a Sunday. It is also likely that Sunday took great importance in the early church in order to distinguish it from Jewish practice of worship on the Sabbath (Friday evening/Saturday).
Traditional Anglican or Church of England practice was to have two or three services on a Sunday. These were Morning Prayer, Matins and Evensong. These services included prayers, hymns, readings from the Bible, Collects and a sermon. In recent years, Matins has often been replaced by a ‘Eucharistic’ form of service. In these services, the priest leads a form of worship based on the Last Supper that Jesus had with his disciples often called a sacramental service, which Roman Catholics call Mass, the Orthodox call it the Liturgy, Anglicans call it the Eucharist, and non-conformists call it the Lord’s Supper. Here, bread and wine is blessed and the congregation participate. These services normally start about 10am on a Sunday and last about an hour in total.
Non-conformist services tend to be based on the ‘Word’ rather than on the sacrament and so the place of the Bible and the preaching of the minister takes greater place. Hymns, anthems and popular music are often more central.
Worship is an act of devotion to God. It can be expressed through prayer, music, song, quiet and contemplation, even service. Worship recognizes that God can be communicated with and that he will respond accordingly. Institutional and congregational worship is normally associated with a church where worship is part of the learning process of the community of faith. Through activity, support and shared experiences in worship, a member of the Christian faith gains in understanding of their faith. Christians also pray alone and Jesus’ injunction about prayer, ‘But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.’ (Matthew 6:6) suggests that individual prayer is a very important complement to congregational worship.
The community of faith is dependent upon the support of its members. It is a truism to say that a church is not just the building but the people who congregate within it. Church members are the earthly embodiment of the ‘Kingdom of God’ and hope to act according to the rules which stand in the kingdom – that of unconditional love as embodied in the life, teaching, work, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The importance of a church building to the community as a whole is to provide a physical symbol of the presence of Christianity within that community. The parish church in any community provides a natural contact with the rites of passage, of baptism, marriage and death that many people who would not normally attend church for Sunday worship, still participate in. For Christians, their church provides opportunities not only for worship, but also opportunities to learn about their faith through Bible, prayer and discussion groups. Church groups also meet for social occasions, and mission activities that might take them out into the community. Such activities might provide support and facilities for disadvantaged groups like single mothers, older people and the unemployed. The church is therefore an important part of the social fabric of any community and the Cathedral is significant in importance for confirmations, ordinations and civic events.
The main Christian places of pilgrimage include Jerusalem and Bethlehem in the Holy Land, Rome in Italy; Lourdes in France; Santiago de Compostella in Spain; Knock in Ireland; Walsingham and Canterbury in England. In the days before cars, planes and other comfortable transport, a person of faith would have to walk or go by horse, and people who have done long pilgrimages to Santiago by foot, suggest that it is a wonderfully up lifting and spiritually worthwhile effort to walk the hundreds of kilometres necessary to gain the ‘compostella’ or certificate which confirms that the pilgrimage is completed.
There is also the concept of ‘walking in the shoes’ of the founder and many Christians view the idea of going where their founder Jesus went; to see the sights he saw, to feel the history and country in which he grew up, taught, died and was risen, to be an educationally and spiritually uplifting experience.
Christians of some denominations, for example Catholics, believe also that pilgrimages to historical places of interest such as the Vatican in Italy in order to see the Pope to be especially beneficial and a sign of devotion to the faith. Alongside this, Catholics also believe that God intervenes on behalf of his people through certain saints in order to be able not only to heal spiritual wounds that pilgrimage helps to cure, but also physical wounds and hurt. At Lourdes in France, many thousands of disabled people visit the grottos hoping for healings, and other similar sites can be found elsewhere.
Christians might also argue, that life itself is a pilgrimage and by doing good, being faithful and helping the world be a better place, then that is what God is wanting Christians to do. This is of course important, and there is no getting away from the fact that a real pilgrimage, with other pilgrims, helps a person understand their faith and helps them in their own spiritual journey.
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