Before the establishment of our modern religious practices, there existed among ancient cultures a simpler understanding of the mysteries of the spirit. During these early times, humans related to their existence in a basic creationism founded on four essential elements that comprise our world: earth, fire, water, and air. While these simple symbols may seem far removed from the intricacies of the world’s surviving religions, if one is to trace their developments far enough back, it is clear that these early roots of spirituality have grown to bear fruits in our own faiths and practices. Let’s consider some of the influences ancient rituals and rites have had on our Christian services.
Earth symbolizes creation. In Genesis, God took earth to make the body of man, it is from the earth that all life originates, and to the earth that the body returns in death. Whether through the practice of internment, cremation, or sky burials as performed in Tibet, the basic principle remains the same: “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Even the earliest humans seemed to realize the significance earth has in the cyclical property of life and death, and it is their recognition of funeral rites that scholars attest to be the first example of belief in life eternal. Thus, the most basic form of early religion was nature-based.
Tribes from ancient times through modernity have given praise to nature, be it the land itself or the spirits that inhabit it. Native Americans believed that animals were gods and would reveal themselves to be sacrificed for food when one lived in harmony with nature. We see a similar principle in the Christian communion, where the wine and bread taken as the sacrament between God and men is said to be the blood and body of Christ (that is, the essence of Christ and the truth of His Word). Just as the Jews found sustenance from the earth at the beginning of every day while wandering forty years in the desert, this new sustenance is described as an eternal one.
The earth element is used in the Christian observance of Ash Wednesday, a holy day of prayer, fasting, and repentance. By tracing a cross with ash on the forehead, Christians acknowledge the impermanence of this worldly existence and look to the eternal life foretold in Christ’s resurrection.
Water is the foundation of all life. Without it, nothing can flourish. It is this truth that has inspired every culture to embrace water as a sacred symbol and use it in their acts of worship for millennia. Even today, religions across the world recognize its transcendent power of creation.
Ritual washing, for instance, is a key spiritual act in many world religions. Thermal springs in Bath, England were utilized by Celtic Sulis as well as Pagan Romans for their healing properties and even as places of worship. In India, Hindus bathe along the Ganges River as a way to wash away sins. Similarly, clean water is used in both Judaism and Islam to anoint the body after death as an act of purification.
In the Japanese Shinto tradition, water may be used as an act of discipline. By seeking out natural water sources such as spring fed waterfalls, Shintos stand beneath icy streams to cut through distraction and focus the mind in meditation. Echoing God’s cleansing of the world’s sin in the great deluge, holy water in Catholicism is used to bless a person or space, thus protecting it from evil.
Furthermore, Christian baptism (or the immersion of a person in water), fulfills all of these functions. It is meant as a rite of initiation from a secular to spiritual life. The connection this important ritual has with actual birth is purposeful and forms the foundation for a great deal of sacred syntax in our services. Baptism displays one’s intention to accept Christ into his heart and symbolizes the cleansing of the spirit of past sin. With this elemental act, the Christian acknowledges that he is cleansed, healed, and a new creation of divine grace.
Fire in religion represents the power of the divine. Native Americans believe that fire is a living entity, possessing the ability to reveal great truths to those who gaze deep within its dancing flames during tipi gatherings. Often, they may burn sage as a way to bless a person or place, repel unwanted spirits, and purify the spirit. Eastern religions such as Buddhism, Taoism, and Shinto similarly use incense in this manner. It is considered to clear the surroundings in a worship service and call forth the presence of sacred entities.
The Old Testament says that the presence of God would emerge from the Ark of the Covenant as a pillar of fire and dwell among His people during their exodus journey. Most Christian churches extend this concept into practice with the hanging of banners and art for the season of Pentecost to represent the HOLY SPIRIT. There is also the lighting of special candles during advent, times of prayer, or even unity candles during wedding ceremonies. In each of these observances, those present are inviting the presence of God to sanctify the occasion.
Another example of how fire is held sacred in Christianity can be seen every year on the day before Easter. Thousands of pilgrims travel to Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher to witness an event known as the Holy Fire, where a flame miraculously ignites over the very tomb where Jesus was resurrected. Although clergymen claim it does not burn them, those in fellowship light candles from the flame to symbolize the light of Christ extending to each and every person.
It is no wonder that humans regard fire with such reverence. The ability to control fire was the turning point in human development. It enabled us to cook, to see in darkness, and empowered us to interact with our environments as we never could before. It is described in art and literature as the enlightenment of man—the gift of life—and it is this relation to light that extends its principles into a far more important symbol to the purposes of religious ceremony.
Air has always held a special place in connecting man to the divine. The ancients paid close attention to the movements of wind as divine communication. Native Americans believed that helpful spirits exist in the wind, guiding and protecting humans in a belief that parallels that of guardian angels.
Within the Judeo-Christian praxis, humanity was animated when God breathed life into them. In this way, breath directly correlates with our life force. This is not such as stretch, even to Eastern traditions. Hindus call it prāna (translated as “breath” or “life force”), a term that has gained notoriety in the West through the growing popularity of yoga. That said, sitting meditations from all traditions call for the practitioner to focus on the breath and quiet the mind so that one’s life force may inhabit the body fully and without distraction. If our bodies are temples, we are called to remember our breath as the gift of life.
In the end, what air serves in most religious contexts is to celebrate our basic existence. When we forget that the divine breath lives within and sustains us, we forget to appreciate what it is to be alive. Then this is the highest affirmation of the symbol air in religion; with every inhalation comes a blessing, and with every exhalation is an offering.
Consequently, the role of the church choir is to bring the celebration of life to the congregation in the offering of song. Varying breaths join together, many voices sing as one, and differences become harmony. God breathes life into us all and we vocalize that life in worship and praise. Through music, we dedicate to the Giver of the Song the music of our faith.
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