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The Stages of Life in Christianity

Christianity has organized the stages of life around special rituals called Sacraments. These rites function to bring the individual who participates in them more deeply into a relationship with the church and serve as a "visible outward sign" of an inner change brought about by God's grace. The officially recognized sacraments are actions which are believed to have been instituted by Jesus himself. The Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church recognize seven sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation, Marriage (Matrimony), Extreme Unction (anointing the sick), Eucharist, Penance, and Holy Orders (i.e., Ordination). The first four mark stages of life, while Eucharist (see the Time and Worship page) and Penance (see the Religious Life page) are repeated as rites to help live a Christian life. The rite of Holy Orders begins a transition into a new type of life, one wholly dedicated to service in the church.

Most Protestant Churches recognize only two sacraments, those of Baptism and Eucharist. This reduction stems from their belief that these are the only two instituted by Jesus. Although most churches practice the other rituals--especially confirmation, marriage, and ordination--these rite rites are not considered sacraments.

Baptism

Although baptism began as a means of bringing adult converts into the church, it has widely become a way to designate newborn children as members of the Christian community. When baptism was primarily for adults, it was a public ceremony performed by a priest before the gathered members of the church in which the person affirmed their intention to become a Christian. It was often preceded by a process of education in which the convert learned about the meaning of Christianity and salvation. This was often called catechism.

As Augustine's doctrine of Original Sin became official belief starting in the fifth century, waiting until adulthood for the children of Christians to be able to affirm for themselves their desire to be Christians posed a problem. If infants were born in sin, without baptism they would die unredeemed and go to hell. And unfortunately, they were dying; infant mortality in antiquity and the Middle Ages could reach as high as fifty percent. This transformed baptism into an act performed on infants, often in the few minutes after they were born, especially if they appeared sickly. Thus baptism became a private rite, with family members rather than the church present. Often it serves as a naming ceremony as well.

In modern times, with our medical advances, infant baptism is becoming a public act held in the church before the witness of members. It is seen as a means of linking the child to the society of the church, so that they will all have a responsibility for raising the child within the Christian community. Some Protestant Churches--particularly the Baptists--have revived the practice of adult baptism only. They instead have a ceremony of infant dedication.

Confirmation

The rise of infant baptism led to a second rite, whose function had been served in adult baptism. This is the rite of confirmation, when adult children "confirm" for themselves the vows of membership (conversion) that had been said on their behalf as infants. This rite usually takes place at puberty, somewhere between the ages of eight and thirteen. It is a public rite that takes place before the assembled members of the church. The rite is usually conducted by the minister, although in the Roman Catholic Church, the authority to perform confirmation resides in the bishop.

Confirmation is usually preceded by an educational process in the main elements of Christian belief. In many churces, confirmation is the pre-requisite for participating in the rite of the Eucharist. So much so that often confirmation is actually called "First Communion." In this way, confirmation becomes an important rite of passage in which the person who was formerly a child is now recognized as an adult member of the church.

Marriage

Marriage, the state of Holy Matrimony, is the joining of two adults, one male and the other female, into a permanent state of unity. The rite is performed by a priest or minister and celebrated before friends and family who represent the church. Traditionally, there are three positive reasons for marriage: the bearing of children, the prevention of sin (i.e., sex outside of marriage), and mutual companionship. It is the union of equals, both male and female parties must fully intend to join together; one party may not be coerced.

Marriage is difficult state; it is the life-long joining of two individuals with all their strengths and weaknesses, interests, talents, and abilities. Together the husband and wife are expected to endure whatever fortunes or misfortunes they may enter during their life together. The status of marriage as a sacrament makes marriage even more complicated, especially from a theological perspective. The main problem is this: if marriage is a sacrament the performance of which is blessed by God, it surely cannot be ended simply because the two people are incompatible! The Roman Catholic Church deacided this question simply by not permitting divorce. An unconsummated marriage could be annulled in extreme circumstances, but that was the only possiblity. Protestantism by and large continued this belief, moderating it only slightly. It has really only been in the late twentieth century that the institution of civil marriage in most countries has taken the matter out of the hand of the church. In this way, there has been an end-run around the theological problems. And it has only remained for the different churches to accept or reject the results. Many of the Protestant churches have accepted them, even permitting remarriage. Others allow the separation of divorce, but not remarriage; understanding the first marriage as still restricting sexual activity (which remains defined as adultery). By contrast, Orthodoxy has permitted divorce since the sixth century.

Taking Holy Orders

Entering Holy Orders, also known as Ordination, is the process by which Christians become church officials, namely, bishops, priests, and deacons. Ordination is a life choice, one which the candidate must be totally persuaded that they have a call to serve in the order, a call to which they are ready to devote their life. In addition, he (in some churches now, she) must be a member in good standing. In the Catholic Church, ordination as a priest requires one to be celebate. Hence, the theological meaning of taking orders is in some way likened to a marriage, like the one between Christ and his Church. Indeed, it often happens at the same time of one's life that marriage would (e.g., early 20s) In Protestantism and Orthodoxy, where ministers and priests may be married, this symbolism is substantially less.

Ordination is traditionally performed only by bishops; this is part of the way they keep control over the religious leadership in their diocese.

Unction (Anointing of the Sick)

As a word, "unction" simply means anointing with oil, an act that happens as part of other sacramental rites, such as confirmation and ordination. As a separate sacrament, however, unction usually means "Extreme Unction" and refers to the anointing of the sick. Although originally intended as a healing action, the "extreme" aspect means that it is usually not performed until the person is quite seriously ill. It has therefore, from a popular perspective, taken on the aspect of "last rites," the final religious observance before death.

Unction has been practiced mainly in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. The Protestants essentially dropped it altogether.