“Christian initiation” refers to the ritual process employed by various churches in forming new Christian converts through catechesis (instruction) during the “catechumenate” to baptism, postbaptismal rites (including hand-laying and anointing, sometimes called “confirmation”), culminating in First Communion, and leading to the further integration of these newly initiated members into ongoing Christian life through “mystagogy.” Christian initiation is the story of diversity and change as the biblical images of initiation lead toward a rich variety of early Christian practices and theological interpretations, eventually coming to focus on Christian baptism as “new birth” or the “washing of regeneration” in water and the Holy Spirit (John 3:5 and Titus 3:5) in early Syria and Egypt and baptism as participation in the death and burial of Christ (Rom. 6) in North Africa and other places in the West.
In the 4th and 5th centuries, after Christianity emerged as a cultus publicus, the rites of Christian initiation underwent a certain standardization and cross-fertilization as various churches borrowed from one another to construct rites that display a remarkable degree of homogeneity. These rites include a decided preference for celebrating Christian initiation at Easter, after a period of final catechetical preparation in Lent; prebaptismal rites with an exorcistic focus; an almost universal (Rom. 6) theological interpretation of baptism; and postbaptismal hand-layings or anointings associated explicitly with the gift or “seal” of the Holy Spirit, still leading to First Communion within a unitive and integral process. Another characteristic, thanks to the controversies faced by Augustine with Pelagianism, was the development of a new theological rationale for the initiation of infants, which focused on the inheritance of “original sin” from Adam. This would have far-reaching consequences for subsequent centuries as infant baptism became the norm for practice and theology.
If the Eastern rites underwent little further development in the Middle Ages, the West experienced what many have been called a sacramental dissolution, disintegration, and separation. Gradually, the postbaptismal rites of hand-laying and anointing, associated with the gift of the Holy Spirit and now with the physical presence of the bishop, became separated from infant baptism and were given at a later point. Similarly, the reception of First Communion also became separated and was often postponed until the canonical age of seven. This process was inherited by the adherents of the Protestant and Catholic reformations of the 16th century. Little was done to restore the unitive and integral process of Christian initiation from the earlier centuries and confirmation itself developed among the reformers largely into a catechetical exercise or rite with First Communion either prior to or after confirmation.
In the early 21st century, thanks to the Roman Catholic Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults and similar rites in other churches, the unitary and integral process of initiation has been restored. What remains to be done, however, is the full integration of infants and children into this process, although in several Anglican and Lutheran contexts infants now are again recipients of the full rites of initiation, including First Communion.
Ruth A. Meyers
Weddings and funerals mark major transitions in human life. In these rites of passage, which effect a transformation from one status to another, an individual is separated from one state of existence, passes through a threshold or liminal space, and is incorporated into the community with a new status. In a wedding, individuals move from being single to being joined in a marriage, and in rites surrounding death, a person moves from the land of the living to become an ancestor. These rites of passage concern not only those making the transition but also the community. The ritual actions enable the individuals as well as the community to navigate momentous events in human life, they acknowledge and bring about a transformation in the community, and they offer an interpretive framework for the transition.
Weddings and funerals are not rooted in any single religious tradition. Rather, they are social and cultural events that may also have a religious dimension. Many religious weddings and funerals incorporate practices from different cultural contexts, and as social or cultural norms change, ritual practices may evolve to accommodate these norms. Wedding practices have changed to reflect modern Western notions of companionate marriage rather than arranged marriage, and, more recently, growing acceptance of same-sex life partnerships has led a few religious bodies to develop rituals to bless these relationships. Funerals express different understandings of life after death, and they are adapted to various practices for disposal of the body, for example, cremation or burial of the body.
Paul F. Bradshaw
The forms of Christian worship changed and developed considerably during the first four centuries of its existence, not least from a distinctive local or regional diversity to an increasing standardization of practice throughout the ancient world. One of the major factors influencing these changes was the eventual adoption of the New Testament as the Christian scripture, and another was the emergence of the church into public life early in the 4th century. Rites of initiation chiefly involving baptism in water marked the entry of new converts into the community of believers. The central observance was the Eucharist, celebrated every Sunday from at least the end of the 1st century. This was supplemented by services of the word on certain days of the week and by regular times of prayer each day undertaken by individuals or small groups of believers. Annual festal celebrations, the majority of which were associated with the anniversaries of martyrs and others who had died, also increased in number as time passed.
Christians understood the worship that they offered through Jesus Christ to be the spiritual fulfillment of the sacrificial cult of the Old Testament. Although at first insisting that they were not a religion like others around them—indeed, they were regarded as atheists by their contemporaries—they ultimately came to adopt the language, images, and terminology of standard religious discourse once their persecution had ceased and the Church had emerged as a cultus publicus in the 4th century. This also coincided with a shift from an understanding of worship as an essentially corporate action presided over by its appointed ministers to one where those ministers were seen as carrying out its liturgy on behalf of the people.
Festivals are periods of time, cut out from daily life, during which a group performs activities that are most often thought of as communications with the superhuman world. Festival names in Greece and Rome often express this close connection with a divinity, a hero, or a human founder, or they refer to a ritual activity that is characteristic for a festival. The basic ritual elements that underlie a specific festival scenario are similar in both cultures (as well as in other cultures of the ancient Mediterranean world): processions, sacrifices with ensuing banquets, and athletic and musical contests are most common and exist already in the festival descriptions in Homer, such as the New Moon festival on Ithaca in the Odyssey. Common festivals founded and expressed group identity, first and foremost on the city level, but also for smaller and larger groups, from the family and clan group to the tribe or the community of all Hellenes. Greek and Roman festivals were so similar in their basic forms that, during the Imperial epoch, cities in the eastern part of the Empire adopted Roman festivals despite the fact that Greek cities followed a lunar calendar, whereas Rome early on had introduced a luni-solar system. The one festival type absent from the Roman world, at least during the Republican epoch, was the mystery ritual that, typically through a one-time initiation ritual, founded groups that transcended a single city, as well as the limits of gender and social status.
During the Imperial epoch, both Rome and the cities of Greece continued their traditional festivals, but also developed their festival calendars in new directions, continuing and exploring innovations that had occurred already in Hellenistic times. An early development was ruler cult, developed in the Greek cities during Hellenistic times and adopted for the cult of Roman emperors, who exploited its potential to tie together a heterogeneous empire through shared cultic activities. The most important driving force was an understanding of divine power that was defined through its helpful manifestation and thus allowed the cult of outstandingly powerful humans. Wealthy citizens of Hellenistic cities also founded festivals in the memory of family members, and during the Imperial period, such foundations multiplied and gained in grandeur. The Imperial epoch also saw the extension of single festivals to events that lasted many days, if not an entire month and helped to shape the Christian festival calendar with its long festival periods.
Richard K. Payne
The homa is a votive offering involving the construction of a fire in a hearth-altar, and the immolation of offerings in the fire. The altar is homologized with a mandala, and as with other ritual uses of mandalas, the deity evoked in the course of the ritual is located at the mandala’s center, and in this case identified with the fire itself. As a tantric ritual, the practitioner is also ritually identified with both the deity and the fire, and the offerings made into the fire are the spiritual obstacles that impede the practitioner from full awakening. Tantric homas are generally categorized according to different functions or goals, such as protection, subduing adversaries, and so on. As a form of individual practice conducive to awakening, the practitioner’s own inherent wisdom is identified with the fire, and just as the offerings are transformed and purified, the practitioner’s own spiritual obstacles are as well.
Ritualized activities of maintaining and making fire are some of the most ancient forms of social coordination, which is essential to the development of the human species. Such ritualization would seem to be the basis for fire cults, forms of which are known throughout the world’s religions. In the scope of Indo-European religions, similarities of practice and symbolism provide a shared background to the homa per se. More directly, there appear to be both Vedic and Indo-Iranian traditions of ritual praxis that converge in the tantric homa.
The homa is found in all of the Indic tantric traditions: Buddhist, Śaiva, and Jain. Once established as part of tantric practice, the homa was spread throughout Central, East, and Southeast Asia, particularly in its Buddhist form. This transmission of ritual practice engaged local traditions wherever it spread. Tibetan tantric traditions developed an extensive literature of homa rituals, and from there the practice also influenced Mongolian fire rituals as well. In China, interaction between tantric Buddhism and Daoism led to the creation of a homa devoted to the Northern Dipper, a figure unknown in Indian sources of Buddhist tantra. Two similar examples are found in Japan. The Shintō traditions of Yuiitsu (or Yoshida) and Miwa modified the tantric Buddhist form for the worship of a selection of Shintō deities. Similarly, the tradition of mountain asceticism, Shugendō, also adopted the homa and adapted it to its purposes. As a result of the repression of Buddhism in the third quarter of the nineteenth century, the Shintō forms are no longer extant, though in the present many Shintō shrines perform rituals of various kinds in which fire plays an important role. In contrast, the Shugendō homa, sometimes as a prelude to fire-walking, remains an active part of Japanese religion into the present day.
The tantric homa has been interpreted in a variety of ways, reflecting the multifaceted character of fire itself. There are two important strains of interpretation. One is the yogic interiorization of ritual found in post-Vedic Indian religion, more as a form of esoteric physiology than as a psychologized understanding of visualization. While closely related to yogic interiorization of ritual, the sexual symbolisms that are attached to all aspects of the fire rituals constitute a second strain of interpretation. These symbolic associations are important for their role in understanding tantric notions of ritual efficacy, which require greater nuance of understanding than can be attained by simply categorizing such practices as magic.
Jewish liturgy is a complex phenomenon, manifesting change over time and place as well as some significant diversity today. Today’s prayers emerged from the rituals of the rabbis of the early centuries of the Common Era, compensating for the loss of the Jewish ritual center, the Jerusalem Temple, destroyed by the Romans in 70
The received rabbinic worship is highly structured and scripted. There are three services every day, with a fourth on festive days. The key structural elements combined in these services are the recitation of shema῾ and its blessings, the multi-blessing ῾amidah, and the reading of Torah. To these, other elements have aggregated, like introductory prayers, Psalms, and supplicatory prayers. Meals also require short blessings before eating and a longer grace afterwards. The Passover seder extends this meal ritual with narrative, Psalms, and songs. Variation among medieval regional rites and their modern heirs manifests itself within this structure not only in small differences of wording, but also in more significant dissimilarities in modes of performance. In modernity, liberal movements abbreviated, translated, and otherwise rewrote many prayers.
The messages of Jewish liturgy are embedded within this structure as well as in the themes of the liturgical year, expressed primarily through scripture readings. The annual Torah cycle tells the Jewish story from creation up to the Israelites’ entry into their land. The primary festival cycle and the blessings surrounding the shema῾ highlight the key elements of this narrative: God’s work of creation, redemption, and revelation. Permeating the liturgy, though, is the expectation of future messianic redemption.
Roger R. Jackson
Mahāmudrā, “the Great Seal,” is a Sanskrit term (Tibetan: phyag rgya chen po) that connotes a wide range of concepts and practices in Indian Mahāyāna and, especially, Tibetan Buddhism, most of them directly or indirectly related to discourse on ultimate reality and the way to know and achieve it. The term first appeared in Indian tantric texts of the 7th or 8th century
In recent years, the study of religion has undergone a useful materialization in the work of many scholars, who are not inclined to define it in terms of ideas, creeds, or doctrines alone, but want to understand what role sensation, emotion, objects, spaces, clothing, and food have played in religious practice. If the intellect and the will dominated the study of religion dedicated to theology and ethics, the materialization of religious studies has taken up the role of the body, expanding our understanding of it and dismantling our preconceptions, which were often notions inherited from religious traditions. As a result, the body has become a broad register or framework for gauging the social, aesthetic, and practical character of religion in everyday life. The interest in material culture as a primary feature of religion has unfolded in tandem with the new significance of the body and the broad materialization of religious studies.
Joanne M. Pierce
The liturgy of the medieval Christian West (ca. 600–1500) provided the structure around which life in Western Europe was structured for almost a thousand years. Rooted in Christian antiquity, in the early central liturgical structures of Initiation and Eucharist, the private and public observance of daily prayer, and the development of a liturgical year, the long medieval period that followed saw a broadening elaboration and expansion of the liturgical life of Christians in many different directions. By the year 1200, theologians had defined seven of the Church’s liturgical rites as primary sacraments: Baptism and Confirmation (from the ancient initiation sequence); Eucharist; Penance (with the emphasis on private confession of sins); Ordination (through various minor orders to the three major orders of deacon, presbyter, and bishop); Extreme Unction (anointing of the sick, now reserved for the gravely ill); and Matrimony (as the liturgical rites for the originally domestic rituals of marriage become more elaborate and set in the church rather than the home). A more fulsome cycle of the liturgical year developed around the ancient feasts of Easter, Pentecost, Christmas, and Epiphany, augmented by an elaborate calendar of commemorations and feasts of saints. Monastic influence resulted in a daily round of liturgical prayer, the Divine Office, in which various “hours” of prayer during the day and night were marked by liturgical “offices” of psalmody and scripture—some longer, others more brief. One of the major ways this liturgical growth and diversity can be studied is through an examination of the various liturgical books compiled and used during these medieval centuries, books used for the celebration of the Eucharist (the Mass), for the Divine Office, and for other liturgical rites. In addition to the volumes containing rubrics and prayers for liturgical celebrations, a separate cluster of books contained music to be used during these rites, in a style known as chant; Gregorian chant became the dominant form. The full impact of medieval liturgy as it was experienced in the Western Europe, however, extended far beyond the “bare bones” contained in these books, intertwined as it was with the development of art and architecture, law and commerce, and the political/socio-economic developments that would take Christian society and religion from the twilight of late antiquity to the dawn of early modernity.
Adam M. Ware
Monuments, memorials, and museums mark America’s landscape and define both the purpose of spaces and the actors who inhabit them. From the earliest colonial encounters to the new age of mass trauma, memory and its cultural accretions have conferred meaning and denied agency at the intersections of economics, politics, culture, and religious habit. Inasmuch as battlefield memorial sites and statues to fallen soldiers generate community identity through demands for consensus memories and prescribed reactions, national memorials also reflect the diversity, contestedness, and political derivation of those consensuses and those memories. Memorials form physical sites for cultural rupture and ritual redress.
Memorialization ritualizes behaviors, standardizes emotional expressions, and regulates the terms on which Americans orient themselves relative to one another. Whether staging mock funerals for an English king or leaving flowers and notes at a site where forty-nine young people lost their lives, death forms a key experience responsible for memorial motivation, but celebrations of independence and victory also produce parades, festivals, and active memorial traditions. In the flows of past and present, life and death, preservation and change, and sanctity and secularism, memorial objects, processes, and behaviors mark and are marked by the historic developments in American religious and civil life.