Christianity dates back to the first century and is centered on the person and work of Jesus Christ. Christianity has three main branches of belief and practice: Catholicism, Protestantism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Christians worship one God as the Holy Trinity, consisting of the Father (creator of the universe), Jesus Christ (the savior of the world) and the Holy Spirit (which has worked to sanctify and transform lives throughout history and continues to do so today).
The Orthodox church, or the Eastern half of the Christian church, split with the Roman Catholic Church in 1054 A.D. Orthodox Christians are incredibly diverse, and among the nationalities and cultures represented are Antiochian, Carpatho-Russian, Greek, Romanian, Russian, Serbian and Ukrainian.
The Protestant church formed in the 16th century, separating from the Roman Catholic Church over disputes about faith and justification. The Protestant church is further divided into denominations, including (but not limited to) Presbyterian, Episcopal, Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist and Wesleyan.
- God: “God” refers to a single, omnipotent, omnipresent, eternal deity. God is triune, meaning that God is One in Three Persons, without division or distinction. God is the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This belief is not meant to be grasped in a mathematical way, but contemplated through a lifetime. Like Jews and Muslims, Christians are of the Abrahamic tradition and worship the God who made a covenant with the ancient Hebrew people.
- Christ: From the Greek Christos and Hebrew Messiah, which means “anointed one.” A messiah is sent by God to bring the salvation of the people, and Christians consider Jesus of Nazareth to be the ultimate messiah. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, He made Heaven available and attainable for the faithful, bringing ultimate salvation in eternal life with God.
- Communion: A regular sharing in the elements of bread and wine, which for Protestants signify the body and blood of Jesus as he shared it the night before his death. Communion is the central act of Christian worship.
- Sacraments: Visible signs of God’s grace in the world. Catholic and Orthodox traditions have seven Sacraments, while Protestants have two. Besides the official seven or two, any experience or item that makes God’s grace visible can be considered sacramental.
In the Orthodox Church, the seven sacraments are: Baptism, Penance, Eucharist, Confirmation, Marriage, Holy Orders and Anointing of the Sick. In the Protestant Church, the two are Baptism and Communion.
Sacraments of Initiation
- Baptism: The first initiation into Christianity. Most churches consider one baptism necessary, even if a person decides to convert to a different denomination. Baptism consists of water either poured over the head or full-body immersion in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Within the Catholic Church infant baptism is common, but among Protestant churches there are different schools of thought.
- Confirmation: Performed by a bishop, confirmation is the sealing of baptism with the Holy Spirit. It is considered the completion of initiation beginning with baptism and is when the gifts of the Spirit are received to aid in living a Christian life. Confirmation is received once.
- Eucharist: The continual initiation into the life of the Church and the sacrifice of Jesus, Eucharist is celebrated every day of the year at Mass. By receiving the real presence of Christ, Catholics feel a deep connection with Jesus and the community with which they share the ritual.
Sacraments of Vocation
- Marriage: The covenant between a woman and a man to love and care for each other as a family. They invite God’s love and guidance into their lives as they live to care for the best interests of each other, serving as a sign of God’s love in the world. Marriage is only dissolved, and therefore able to be received again, through death or annulment.
- Holy Orders: The ordination of a priest, deacon or bishop. A priest takes vows of chastity and obedience to serve the members of the Church by being a source of pastoral care, instruction and an administer of sacraments.
Sacraments of Healing
- Penance: Also known as reconciliation or confession, penance is the forgiveness of sins through confessing to a priest who then administers absolution from those sins. The priest acts in place of Jesus, who Christians believe can forgive all sins, and the people, who as a community were also hurt by the sins of the individual. The healing process is concluded when the recipient has completed their penance, a task of reparation, assigned to them by their confessor.
- Anointing of the Sick: A blessing with holy oil to bring forgiveness of sins and spiritual healing to those who are seriously ill or injured. It restores the soul and gives strength to endure suffering.
- The Creeds: The Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed are ancient church documents that affirm that basic tenants of Christian faith and are held as definitive for all Christian communities.
Important Religious Texts
The Holy Bible, both Old and New Testaments. The Catholic and Orthodox traditions also include seven apocryphal books.
- The Old Testament or Hebrew Bible contains the Torah (The first five books, also called the Law, include Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. These are the most important texts in Judaism.) histories, psalms and proverbs, poetry, prophets, and for Catholics and Orthodox, apocrypha.
- The New Testament contains the Gospels, (the story of Jesus’ life, includes Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) the Acts of the Apostles, epistles of disciples and one apocryphal writing.
Because of the diversity within Christianity, each branch has its own unique set of customs and traditions. Nearly all celebrate Christmas (the birth of Jesus) and Easter (the resurrection of Jesus) along with their own calendar of holidays.
Worship, Prayer, and Practice
Christians traditionally gather to worship in churches on Sundays. Most Sunday services share the common elements of hymn singing, hearing the reading of the Bible, listening to a sermon, sharing communion and praying together.
Service to others is an essential teaching of Christianity, and all Christians are called to serve each other and the less fortunate. Many Christians volunteer on a regular basis with an organization or do different projects with their faith groups. Many also work for social justice.