Rites and Ceremonies
Written by: Beth Davies-Stofka
This article introduces some practices broadly applicable to multiple Christian denominations. The rites and ceremonies of a particular denomination will be described in the article on that tradition.
The most important Christian rituals are called sacraments, sacred rites that convey God's sacred power or grace. Baptism and Eucharist are the two most important sacraments, and are practiced by most Christians. In many Protestant communities, these two rites are not called sacraments, but ordinances, and are usually understood not to be channels of grace so much as acts of commemoration and symbolic identification with Christ.
Baptism, the Christian rite of initiation, is a ritual cleansing with water. Being observant Jews, the early Christians integrated the ancient Jewish practice of ritual bathing into Christian practice (e.g., Leviticus 14:8). Baptism was also used to initiate converts to Judaism, and the Essenes, contemporaries of Jesus, practiced a daily ritual of bathing. According to accounts in the Gospels, John the Baptizer, who baptized his followers as a sign of repentance, baptized Jesus as well. Jesus later instructed his followers to baptize others. For early Christians, baptism was a sign of moral purification, the beginning of new and eternal life, and an indication of the Christian's readiness for the coming Kingdom of God.
The first Christians conducted baptisms by total immersion in water. Many Christian groups still practice this immersive type of baptism, while others adopt a more symbolic sprinkling of the head with water. In the early years of Christianity, adults, not children, were baptized, and Christians would sometimes delay baptism until death, so that the sins of a lifetime could be washed away just prior to the soul's judgment before God. The practice of infant baptism emerged sometime within the first few centuries, and the liturgical churches still practice infant baptism. However, some Protestant groups teach that baptism should be voluntary and baptize only adult initiates.