Document Title

BASIC PRACTICES
OF RELIGION IN NIGERIA

PART 2 Christianity

by
Joseph Kenny, O.P.

DOMINICAN PUBLICATIONS
LAGOS
1999


1. Faith

1.1 Profession of faith

The first question a Chritian would ask is "Why should faith be listed as a practice?" Faith and works are usually distinguished, since we have believers who are not practising, and we hear that Abraham was justified by his faith, not by his works (Rm 4 etc.).

For Muslims, faith is not something just to be held onto, but they must profess it openly. That is how they practice faith. As Christians we too must be witnesses ("martyrs") to our faith by words and actions. The supreme witness is to lay down our lives to keep God's commands or to profess our faith. Muslims also die to keep God's commands, as the martyrs of Uganda, who included Catholics, Protestants and Muslims.

But the usual meaning of a martyr (shahÓd) in Islam is one who dies fighting for the interests of Islam. Christians are nowhere promised heaven for taking up the sword to defend Christianity.

Another difference is that Muslims are exempt from professing their faith in times of persecution. Qur'‚n 16:106 excuses those who deny their faith outwardly but keep it in their heart. For Christians this is impossible: "The one who disowns me in the presence of human beings, I will disown in the presence of my Father in heaven" (Mt. 10:33).

1.2 Articles of faith in Islam and Christianity

Every time he is called to pray, a Muslim is called to believe: "L‚ il‚ha ill‚ ll‚h, MuĆammadun rasŻl All‚h" - in one God, and MuĆammad as the messenger of God's revelation. Muslims further distinguish these beliefs into five: 1) God, 2) Angels, 3) Messengers, 4) Scripture, 5) the Last Day.

As for God, they say he has no son and no father (Qur'‚n 112) - understood as distinct beings. Angels are there principally to bring messages to the Messengers or Prophets, since God is not supposed to speak directly to men (Qur'‚n 42:51, but see 53:10).

Messengers - the previous prophets terminating in Muhammad - are highly respected by Muslims, but in theory they have no importance in themselves. They are only bearers of a message and must fade away before that message. For Islam the message is the Qur'‚n.

Christians also believe in God and in a messenger, but for us Jesus is both messenger and message - a man and the eternal Word of God. Jesus hears the Father directly, without the intermediacy of an angel (e.g. Jn 12:28). The Word, the Son, comes from the Father, and the Spirit is from the Father and the Son like their common breath. God is absolutely one in being and in every other respect except for the personal polarities (Speaker-Word and Breather-Breath), which constitute the Trinity.

For more on the articles of faith, see Common themes of Islamic and Christian theology.

2. Christian prayer

2.1 Purification for prayer

The Jews had a tradition of legal purity: not eating without first washing hands (Mt 15:2); there were also animals which were unclean to eat or to touch (Lev 11). A woman was regarded unclean for seven and then thirty-three days after bearing a boy and for two weeks plus sixty-six days after bearing a girl. She was unclean for two weeks during her menstrual period. During this time she could not touch anything consecrated or go into the sanctuary (Lev 12:1-4). A sexual discharge from a man or a woman makes the person unclean and requires purification (Lev 15). The same for touching a corpse (Lev 21:1-4; Nm 19:11-16).

Isaiah developed the idea of purity, preaching God's holiness as its source (Is 1:4; 5:19,24; 6:3; 10:17,20; 41:14,16,20) and emphasizing the need for purification from sins (Is 6:5-7). The practice of using hyssop in sprinkling with water to remove a ritual impurity (Lv 14:4; Nb 19:18) was taken up by David in Psalm 51:7 when he asked God to forgive his sins and wash him from his guilt.

Jesus rejected ritual restrictions (Mt 15:10 "not what goes into the mouth.."). Peter was told in a vision that all animals are clean (Acts 10:10-16,28; 11:9). But those whose faith is not strong should not be induced to eat foods which their conscience regards as unclean (Rom 14).

Jesus used outward washing of feet to symbolize an inward washing of the whole man (Jn 13:3-11). Jesus cleans by the blood he shed (Heb 10:19-22; 1 Jn 1:7). The power of his blood reaches us "by the word he has spoken" (Jn 15:3) and the faith by which we receive his word (Acts 15:9). This is given expression in Christian baptism, which gives us the Holy Spirit (Mt 3:11-12 - acting as fire - 28:19; Acts 1:5; Rom 6:4). It is also manifested in the sacrament of forgiveness of sins (Jn 20:22-23; Mt 16:18-19; 18:18).

Christians sometimes bless water and sprinkle it, asking God to purify them of sin or to ward off harassments or temptations from the devil.

2.2 Dress

Jews had to wear tassels on the hems of their clothes with a violet thread (Nm 15:37-39) and phylacteries on their foreheads containing the most important words of the Law (Ex 13:9,16; Dt 6:8; 11:18). Priests had special vestments (Ex 28; 39).

In the New Testament women are told that the inner disposition of the heart is more important than fine dress and ornaments (1 Pet 3:3-5; 1 Tim 2:9-10). Paul tells women to cover her head in worship, and a man to uncover his (1 Cor 11:4-16). Yet his argument is based on "custom" (v.16), and his conclusions have to be understood in their cultural context. Jesus condemns wearing broader headbands and longer tassels (Mt 23:5) and tells his disciples not to worry about what they are to wear (Mt 7:25-34). Apart from these few indications, as with most things in the New Testament, the law of freedom reigns (cf. Rom 7:6; 2 Cor 3:6).

2.3 Quality of prayer

Jesus gave an extensive teaching on prayer. It is to be in secret (Mt 6:5-6), that is, not done to attract attention; prayer in common is also affirmed (Mt 18:19-20 - "where two or three..."). Do not multiply words (Mt 6:7-8), but the "Our Father" is given as a guide (Mt 6:9-13). Forgiveness must precede (Mk 12:25). Prayer should be persistent (Lk 18:1-8 - the widow), with unwavering faith that moves mountains (Mt 17:20; 21:18-22; 8:10b - the centurion). Prayer is effective if we ask for "good things" (Mt 7:7-11)/ "the Holy Spirit" (Lk 11:13).

Jesus gave an example of praying, at mealtimes (Mt 14:19; 15:36; 26:26-27), in the desert (Mk 1:35), at his Baptism (Lk 3:21), on the mountain at night (Mt 14:23; Mk 1:35; Lk 5:16), especially before choosing the Twelve (Lk 6:12 etc.), alone (Lk 9:18), at the Transfiguration (Lk 9:28-29), in Gethsemane (Mt 26:36-46), on the cross (Mt 27:46; Lk 23:46). He prays for his executioners (Lk 23:34), for Peter (Lk 22:32), for his disciples and those who will come after them (Jn 17:9-24), and for himself (Jn 26:39; cf. Jn 17:1-5; Heb 5:7). These prayers show that he is in permanent touch with the Father (Jn 11:25-27) who never leaves him on his own (Jn 8:29) and always hears his prayer (Jn 11:22,42; cf. Mt 26:53). In glory he continues to intercede for his own (Rm 8:34; Heb 7:25; 1 Jn 2:1, as he promised (Jn 14:16).

2.4 When to pray

We are to pray "always" (Eph 6:18), "regularly" (Rm 12:12), "constantly" (1 Thes 5:17), "perseveringly" (Col 4:2). Anna served God "day and night" with fasting and prayer (Lk 2:37; cf 1 Tim 5:5), as was the Old Testament ideal (Ps 1:2); "to you I cry all the day" (Ps 86:3). The disciples prayed "constantly" awaiting Pentecost (Acts 1:14).

Yet the Christians followed the Jewish hours of formal prayer at fixed hours, where the "first hour" meant 6:00 A.M. The Pentecost event was at the 3rd hour (Acts 2:15). Peter did his prayers at the sixth hour (Acts 10:9) and at the 9th hour (Acts 9:1 - the three hours are also mentioned by Tertullian). The principle hours of prayer in the Old Testament were "evening (before), morning, and noon" (Ps 55:17; cf. Dan 6:11). Psalm 63:6 speaks of prayer "on my bed" and "in the watches of the night"; as Jesus prayed in the night, so do Christians (Acts 16:25). Psalm 119:164 speaks of "seven times a day", giving rise to the Christian monastic practice of praying a night vigil, morning Lauds, the daytime prayers of the 3rd, 6th and 9th hours, evening Vespers, and Compline at 9:00 P.M (all approximate times). The "Liturgy of the Hours", the official Catholic prayer book binding on clergy and religious and encouraged for all, keeps these seven hours, but allows a choice of either the 3rd, 6th or 9th hour, giving a total of 5 prayer times a day, the same as in Islam.

The common basic practice of Christians is to take time out for formal prayer in the morning and the evening; they pray at other times when they have opportunity or special need. The disciples prayed before choosing Matthias (Acts 1:24) and for strength under persecution (Acts 4:23-31).

Christians held common worship services which substituted for Temple or synagogue worship (e.g. Acts 13:2; Heb 10:24). This was done on Sunday (1 Cor 16:2; Acts 20:7), called "the Lord's day" (Rev 1:10) after the day of his resurrection. The Didache 14:1 (an early Christian document) uses the same term for Sunday. The "Lord" was used of Christ to contrast with Roman worship of the emperor. Justin also attests to worship on Sunday; other Church Fathers used the term "8th day".

2.5 Order of prayer

The early Christians followed the Jewish pattern of prayer, yet with considerable freedom. Thanksgiving and praise predominates (2 Cor 1:11; Eph 5:4; Ph 4:6; Col 2:7; 4:2; 1 Th 5:18; 1 Tim 2:1; 1 Cor 14:15-16). "Sing psalms and hymns and inspired songs among yourselves, singing and chanting to the Lord in your hearts, always and everywhere giving thanks to God who is our Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Eph 5:19-20; cf. Col 3:16-17).

The book of Psalms was adopted by Christians and read through the lenses of the New Testament. They expressed praise and thanksgiving, entreaties for help in every need and sorrow, repentance for sin, and description of the suffering and triumph of the Messiah. At the Passover meal Ps 113-118 were used (Mt 26:30). Besides the Psalms there were many New Testament hymns (e.g. Eph 1:3-10; 5:14; Col 1:12-20; Phil 2:6-11; 1 Tim 3:16 & 6:15-16; 2 Tim 2:11-13; Rev 4:11 & 5:9-12; 11:17-18 & 12:10-12; 15:3-4; 19:1-8), especially the songs of Zechariah (Lk 1:68-79), Mary (Lk 1:46-55), and Simeon (Lk 2:29-32).

In Christian worship Scripture passages were read with inspired interpretation. In Corinth this seems to have been done by anyone, as the Spirit moved (1 Cor 12:8 etc.), but later the role of ordained leaders to coordinate teaching and reject errors was stressed (2 Tim 4:16-17; 2 Pet 1:21).

After teaching came intercessions for one another (2 Cor 9:14; Eph 6:18), for sinners and the sick (1 Jn 5:16; Jm 5:13-16), for growth in holiness and the removal of external obstacles (1 Tim 2:18; 3:10) and internal ones (2 Cor 12:8-9), and for authorities (1 Tim 2:1-2). Above all, intercessions are made in Jesus' name (Jn 14:13-14; 15:16; 16:23-24).

All the above resembles the Jewish synagogue service, a Liturgy of the Word, but with a distinct Christian character centered on Jesus. The Temple service, with its sacrifice, was replaced by the Eucharist, or "Lord's Supper" (Mt 26:26-29; Mk 14:22-25; Lk 22:19-20; 24:30; Jn 6:51-58; 1 Cor 10:14-18; 11:23-25). Jesus is the final Passover sacrificial lamb who takes away the sins of the world (Jn 1:29; 4:42), who "offered himself once to bear the sin of many" (Heb 9:28).

Just as the Passover feast (Ex 12:3-10) not only recalled the Exodus but celebrated the ever enduring accomplishment of that event and the actualization of the Covenant on Sinai, so the Eucharist not only recalls Jesus' death, but makes really present the Christ who suffered and rose, "the same yesterday, today and forever" (Heb 13:8). He is the High Priest who offered his life-blood on the cross and through his resurrection entered the heavenly Holy of Holies where the death he underwent is eternally present to the Father. This he continues to offer to the Father while interceding for us (Heb 7:24-25).

Jesus' internal act of offering, initiated at his conception, anticipated at the Last Supper, actualized on the cross, and continuing forever as his priesthood is eternal, becomes present under the visible signs of bread and wine when a member of the Church who has been given a special share in his priesthood by ordination acts in his name. In this action the entire assembly exercises their general share of Jesus' priesthood given in baptism (1 Pt 2:9; cf. Ex 19:6), and all offer to the Father the everlasting sacrificial act of Jesus made present before them. In this way the sacrifice of Jesus becomes the sacrifice of the Church. The Church offers the Father Jesus himself and the infinite value of his own offering. At the same time the participants become beneficiaries of his sacrifice, according to the ancient prayer: "Whenever the commemoration of this sacrifice is celebrated the work of our redemption is enacted."

The Eucharistic commemoration is not simply a re-presentation of the sacrifice of Jesus. It envelops as well the entire lives of the participants. Peter's lofty description of the priesthood of all the baptized who make "spiritual sacrifices" and "sing the praises of God" (1 Pet 2:4-10) is concretized by Paul who describes the help that the Philippians gave him as "a pleasing smell, the sacrifice which is acceptable and pleasing to God" (Phil 4:18). All these are sacrifices in the wide sense, and should include everything that a Christian does. In the Eucharistic commemoration these are united with the sacrifice of Jesus and offered "through him, with him, and in him" to the Father.

The Eucharistic commemoration is thus a cosmic communion, uniting the participants in a particular celebration with one another and with all those redeemed by Jesus from the beginning of time. It is an exercise of the "communion of saints", and a foretaste of the heavenly banquet (Mt 8:11; 22:1-14; Lk 12:37; Rev 19:7).

2.6 Postures and rituals

The New Testament sets no fixed postures of prayer, but various ways are described: standing (Mk 11:25; Mt 6:5), raising hands (1 Tim 2:8), kneeling (Lk 22:41 - Jesus in Gethsemane), prostrating (Mt 26:39; Mk 14:35 - the same; Rev 5:8,14).

The Old Testament use of incense in the Temple (Ex 30:1; 1 K 6:20-21) is used to describe the heavenly worship (Rev 8:1-5; 5:8). Christians for a time avoided using incense because it would appear like Roman emperor worship, but later they adopted it in their worship. This and other such cultural customs are not obligatory, nor are they forbidden, but can be used with Christian freedom, if they help express spiritual worship. Today drumming and many other cultural idioms are common in African churches.

3. Fasting in Christianity

In the Old Testament people fasted to obtain a favour from God, such as victory (1 Sam 14:24), rain (1 K 18:41 implied), in mourning the dead (1 Sam 31:13), in repentance (Jonah 3; Joel 2:12-18).

Isaiah reformed the idea of fasting, emphasizing the practice of justice and mercy (58:1-14). In the New Testament the disciples of John fasted like the Pharisees, hoping thereby to hasten the coming of the Day of the Lord. Jesus' disciples could not fast with that day already at hand with the coming of the Messiah-bridegroom (Mt 9:14-15).

Nevertheless, the kingdom of God which has begun will never be fully realized in this life, and to the extent that people sin and suffer, the bridegroom is absent. Therefore Christians fast when they focus on their sinfulness; Jesus advises to do so without attracting attention (Mt 6:16). That is why Christians observe fasting during Lent, that they may renew their death with Jesus (Rom 6:1-11), so as to be able to celebrate his resurrection during the Easter season and receive the renewed gift of his Spirit at Pentecost.

The disciples prayed and fasted before sending Barnabas off on a mission (Acts 13:2-3). Paul and Barnabas did the same when appointing elders in the Churches they founded (14:23).

Mark 9:29 is sometimes cited in support of fasting to drive out demons, but the best manuscripts do not have the word "fasting" in this verse.

4. Christian fund-raising and disbursal

The Gospel's teaching about giving has as its background the Temple shekel tax (Ex 20:13-16) or tithes (Mal 3:10). Jesus said (as the Church at the time the Gospels were written would recall) that the sons of the kingdom are exempt from that tax (Mt 17:24-27). Nevertheless, Jesus praised the generosity of the widow who gave all she had to live on (Mk 12:41-44/Lk 21:1-4). Yet Jesus would not permit exploitative money changing to go on in the Temple (Mt 21:12-13), where Roman coins were not accepted. In contrast to the Pharisees, Jesus approved paying tax to Caesar (Mt 22:15-22/Lk 20:20-26).

Besides generosity, Jesus encouraged giving in secret to avoid the praise of men (Mt 6:1-4), and told his disciples to be detached from money and not worry about the next day (Mt 6:19-34). He invited people to sell all, give to the poor and follow him (Mt 19:21). The parable of Lazarus and Dives shows the necessity for sharing with the poor (Lk 16:19-31).

For a time the early Christian community tried to hold a common purse and distribute to each according to his need, following the example of Jesus (where Judas held and misused the purse, Jn 12:6; 13:28-29): "All owned everything in common; they sold their goods and possessions and distributed the proceeds among themselves according to what each one needed" (Acts 2:44-45). Barnabas sold his land and gave the money to the apostles (Acts 4:36-37). Ananias and Sapphira pretended to do the same and suffered God's punishment as a result (Acts 5:1-11). Distribution was made to widows (Acts 6:1), a practice which got out of hand and had to be reviewed later (1 Tim 5:3-16). The famine in Jerusalem was an occasion for all the churches to show their solidarity (Acts 11:27-30; 24:17; Gal 2:10; Rom 15:26-31; 1 Cor 16:1; 2 Cor 8-9). Alms to the poor "cleanse" the giver (Lk 11:37-41 - the meaning of zaka in Arabic).

Christians are to practice charity and hospitality (Rom 12:3-21), "especially to those who belong to the household of the faith" (Gal 6:10).

The minister of the Gospel may not charge for his services: "You received without charge, give without charge" (Mt 10:8). Simon Magus, who tried to buy spiritual power to make a living by it (Acts 8:18-24) gave the name of "simony" to the crime of charging for spiritual services. But they are to receive alms and gifts, since "those who work in the service of the Gospel should live by the Gospel" (1 Cor 9; Mt 10:10/Mk 6:8-9/Lk 10:7).

The Didache and other early Christian documents show that a collection or offertory was practiced at every Sunday service.

5. Pilgrimage among Christians

In the early Old Testament there were many sanctuaries and centres of cult: Sichem, Bethel, Mamre, Gilgal, Shiloh, Mizpeh, Gideon, and Dan. David centralized the cult in Jerusalem. The it became customary to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem three times a year, especially for the feast of the Passover (Ex 23:14; Nm 28:11ff; Lk 2:41), but also on the Feast of Weeks (Nm 28:26ff) and of Shelters or Booths (Nm 29:12ff; Jn 7:2). Psalms 120-134 are called the "songs of ascent", meant to be sung while going "up" to Jerusalem. Psalm 84:5-7 refers to this pilgrimage (cf. Ps 42:4; Is 30:29).

In the New Testament Jesus often went up to Jerusalem (Lk 2:41; Jn 2:13; 5:1; 7:2-10; 12:20). Jews and proselytes from all over the diaspora came to Jerusalem (Acts 2:3-11; Jn 12:20).

For Christianity the earthly Jerusalem lost its importance before the heavenly one (Rev 21), just as the Church is the new Israel (Gal 6:16; cf. Rom 9:6-8; 11:24; Gal 3:6-9,29; 4:21-31; 1 Cor 10:18; Heb 8:8-10).

So for Christianity, pilgrimage to Jerusalem has none of the meaning it has for Jews. It is only precious as one of the places where Jesus walked. Very early, Christians developed the custom of making pilgrimage to the Holy Land, visiting all the sites where Jesus lived, so that they could come closer to him in spirit. In the year 395 a woman named Aetheria made the pilgrimage, which was by then common, and wrote a journal of her trip. It is the earliest account we have of a Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

Christians also like to take time out for prayer; they call it a "retreat", and like to go off to some isolated place or to a religious shrine. There are many famous Christian shrines outside Nigeria, such as Rome, Lourdes, Fatima, Guadalupe etc., but in Nigeria too there are shrines people go to, especially to spend vigils in prayer.

6. Christian marriage
6.1 Old Testament antecedents

Jesus refers to Genesis (1:26-28; 2:18-25; 3:16) for the state of marriage as it was "in the beginning" (Mt 19:1-9/ Mk 10:1-12). This was to reject divorce. Dismissal of a wife was allowed later (Dt 24;1-4; cf. Is 50:1), but condemned in Malachi 2:13-16 ("I hate divorce, says Yahweh, God of Israel").

Other Old Testament regulations were the requirement of evidence for the bride's virginity (Dt 22:13), exemption of a newly wed man from the army (Dt 24:5; the obligation of marrying a deceased brother's widow (25:5-10), and the death penalty for adultery (Dt 22:22). The degrees of forbidden relationships are given in Leviticus 18; marriage between first cousins is allowed, as in Islam. Endogamous marriage was encouraged or allowed (Gn 24 - Isaac; 2 Sam 13:13; Tb 4:12-13; 6:12). Marriage with non-Jews was forbidden (Dt 7:3-4; Ezr 9:1-2), but see Dt 21:10-14 and the book of Ruth for an exceptions. A wedding ceremony is described in Tobit 7. Mt 1:18 shows that betrothal preceded marriage.

The beauty of marriage is celebrated in the Song of Songs and Psalms 45, 127 & 128. It was used as the image of the covenant between God and his people (Hos 1-2; Jer 2:1; 3:1-5; Ez 16).

6.2 The New Testament

In the New Testament marriage was also taken as a symbol of Christ's union with the Church (Mt 22:1-14; 9:14-16; Eph 5:22-33; Rev 19:7-9; symbolized at Cana Jn 2:1-12).

The permanence of marriage is taught in Mt 19:3-12; 5:31-32; Mk 10:1-11; Lk 16:18; 1 Cor 7:10. Of these the last reference is the strongest. The exception allowed in Mt 19:9 (porneia = fornication between unmarried people) is interpreted in the Jerusalem Bible as an "illicit marriage" within degrees forbidden in Leviticus 18. Nevertheless Protestants and Orthodox have allowed remarriage in cases of "adultery". Catholics do not recognize divorce with remarriage at all, but do recognize cases of "nullity" or invalidity of a first marriage because of ignorance, conditions incompatible with marriage, or lack of full considered consent.

Jesus, by his example and words, encouraged some to forego marriage altogether for the sake of God's kingdom (Mt 19:10-10; implied also in leaving all to follow him, Mt 19:21-22; cf. 1 Cor 7:1,7-8,32-34; Rev 14:4). This is carried out by Catholic religious communities of men and of women, and by priests in most parts of the world; priests in the eastern rites are allowed to be married, but their bishops are always chosen from the monks who are unmarried.

6.3 Monogamy (See Schillebeeckx, Marriage)

The Patriarchs in the Old Testament were generally monogamous, with some cases of bigamy. Abraham followed Hammurabi's law in the case of Sarah's barrenness. The second wife was often a contentious rival (Hagar, Gen 16; Leah/Rachel and their slave girls, Gen 29:30 - 30:13; Hannah/Peninnah, 1 Sam 1:6). In these cases child bearing was considered more important than monogamy (Dt 21:15-17).

Unrestricted polygamy came in the time of the Judges and Kings, as a sign of prestige and power (2 Sam 5:13; 1 K 11:1-8). There was protest against Solomon in 1 K 11:4-8, and David in 2 Sam 15:16. Dt 17:17 says that a king "must not keep on acquiring more and more wives, for that could lead his heart astray", and in Genesis 4:19 where polygamy is said to have begun with Lamech, Cain's descendant.

The view of the Alexandrian Jews is shown in the Septuagint translation of Genesis 2:24, where "the two" is explicitly put in; it is quoted in Mt 19:5: "The two shall become one flesh". The Qumran "Damascus Community" likewise insisted on monogamy.

In the Wisdom literature monogamy is the ideal: Prov 5:15-19; 12:4; 18:22; 31:10f; Ps 128:3; Eccl 9:9. No other possibility is envisaged in Sirach 26; Tob 8:7; 7:12; Mal 2:13-16. Herod I, who was not a pious Jew, had 10 wives, appealing to the example of the Patriarchs (cf. Josephus, Antiquities 14:12:1; 15:9:3; 17:1:2). Otherwise the practice of polygamy had practically disappeared by the time of Jesus. That is why the New Testament does not address the issue explicitly.