Similarities Between Christian Sacraments and Pagan Rites
Author: Kaya DeDanu
Magick was first spelled with a “k” by Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) to differentiate between religious magick, and the stunts and illusions performed by stage magicians. Crowley was the leader of a cult called Ordo Templi Orientis, but is better known for his time with The Golden Dawn. Crowley says, “Magick is the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will.” (The Sidereus Foundation)
There is another part to this definition that will have to be added in to make a usable definition for this article. Magick is the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will and the Will of Deity. Since we are talking about religious magick here, there must be some sense of a divine being in our working definition. There are practitioners of magick who believe that magick comes from within, not from a deity. In this case, I would say that their “deity” is the life energy within themselves. Deity comes in many forms.
I would first like to pause and make it clear from the start that there are many movies out there about Pagan rites (The Craft, a movie about 4 teenage girls that dabble in magick comes to mind first) that are highly inaccurate. Since that movie came out, I can’t count how many people I’ve had approach me asking if I’ll help the “call the quarters.” Movies like that make real practicing Pagans look bad. When you think of magick, don’t think of movies or TV. Remember that those are not real.
I used to sit in church and feel inspired. When I was young, I saw the magick of God in the church in the faces of the people around me. I felt it in the air around me. I was a child then, so naturally I felt bored, but I can still recall feeling something there. I won’t deny that there is some kind of magick involved with the church experience, even if people don’t want to call it that.
I haven’t been to church in fourteen years. As I grew older and kept returning to church, week after week, year after year, I felt the magick slipping away. I knew it was time to move on. I needed to find magick again. I took my Bible and my thirst for spiritual fulfillment, and walked away.
Since it had been so long, I had almost forgotten about the magick of the church. But when I take a step back, I can’t help but see that there is magick on both sides. It’s easy to see that Pagans have magick in their spells, blessings, coming of age rites, and Sabbats, because Pagans will openly call it Magick. The Christians, however, simply choose to call their Magick by different names: prayer, Communion, Baptism, holidays, and other holy sacraments. All of these involve some kind of ritual and divine power, whether from within, or from an outside source.
As I study the differences between the Christian world and the Pagan world, I see that Christians and Pagans will debate and battle about this topic, and there are some from both religions on each side. Many Christians argue that magick is wrong, immoral, and satanic. Many Pagans say that Christians use magick too, to try and put both religions on a more equal base. Some will say that magick comes in many forms. Some Pagans will even say that Christians do not use magick, and to say that prayer is the same as a spell is an insult to both religions.
I have a friend who is a very strict Christian, and whenever something went wrong, or she felt scared, she would pray. In her prayer, she would put her hands together, with clasped fingers, bow her head, and close her eyes ask God to help her, or guide her. She would begin with a phrase such as “Dear Heavenly Father, ” or “Dear Jesus, ” speak her wishes, and then end with “in Jesus’ name I pray, Amen.” It is systematic, ritualistic, and it is used to request something of a higher power. Is it magick?
Marina Patelos, a member of the Greek Orthodox church in Albany, NY, says “for your average person a ‘Hail Mary’ or an ‘Our Father’ wouldn’t count [as magick] because most people just say the words and never really stop to look at what they’re actually saying. But if someone’s praying for, say, their mother not to die of cancer, then yeah, that could count.”
Shirley Oscamp-Colletti, a United Methodist Minister who has been with the Church of the Wild Wood for the past 10 years, says that prayer is a form of magick “If I use your definition. Prayer is a form of connection with an inner or outer deity. Prayer connects with God; some say it is to accomplish a goal. I say it’s more to open yourself to possibilities. The highest form of prayer is to focus on a person and allow the divine light to that person, so the goal is to bring the divine light into that person or situation, not that you want a certain thing to happen.”
I used to find a lot of magick in Communion when I was finally considered mature enough to take it. There was no real class or preparation for it at the Calvary Baptist Church in Springfield, Vermont, but when a person reached the age of 12 they were expected to sit through a whole service instead of attending junior service in another room, and were offered Communion.
The lights in the church were dim, I remember, but sunlight shined brilliantly through the stained glass windows on either side of the room. Each window depicted a different Bible story in symbols and color choices. They were the most beautiful things about the church. Small clear plastic cups that resembled test tubes filled with grape juice would be waiting in circular holders on the backs of the pews next to the hymnal pockets. The pastor would speak the same words ever communion service as bowls of bread were passed around the church and people took a piece out for themselves.
“And Christ said, ‘take, eat. This is my body, ’” the Pastor would say, and everyone in the church would eat their piece of bread. The same pattern was followed with the grape juice, and then everyone would gather in a circle around the pews and sing. It seemed like God was there at those moments when we all held hands and sung together.
I have learned that the little Protestant church that I grew up in was a little different from other churches. Some use wafers instead of bread, and drink wine instead of grape juice. Some churches see this as a symbolic ritual, and some others see it as literal. “According to the Greek Orthodox Church, ” says Patelos, “the bread and wine are transubstantiated into the body and blood of Christ.” This means that “The Holy Spirit” changes the food into the blood and body of Christ. “[This] happens at the part of the blessing where he (the priest) holds up the chalice of wine and says ‘this is the blood of Christ’, in Greek, and then holds up the bread and says ‘this is the body of Christ’ and crumbles it into the wine, ” says Patelos. This sounds like a magickal transformation to me. “Although most of the people at my church would sh*t a brick if someone suggested that, yeah, I would [call it magickal, ]” Patelos says.
Colletti says that Communion is symbolic. “The other interesting things about this in the Methodist church, we don’t use wine. Methodists have been involved in the prohibition movement.” They do this out of respect for those who can’t drink. “We didn’t want them to not take Communion, ” she said.
”I do Communion very informally, ” Colletti continued. “If you’ve been to church there are words in the Hymnal that you’re supposed to read, but I speak more from the heart because I feel that is what the meal is supposed to be a time for people to come and share a simple meal together. My Communion is very earthy. When people in my church come up, they give hugs to me and the person that helps me serve, so it’s a very connective thing, and I like that. People come up out of the pews. I also often will tie it back to Jesus eating with his disciples and the meals that he shared and that’s when people let their hair down and get close to each other. Part of what Communion is about is to break down the barrier.”
“There are two sacraments, ” Colletti says, “[and] the other is Baptism. It’s initiation. The Baptism sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an outward and spiritual grace, so it’s kind of enacting something that’s already happened, which that might be where one of the difference is. When you’re talking about Magick you’re creating magick to make something happen, where as Christian magick, if you want to call it that, is an expression of what has already happened, rather than asking the divine to do something for us, and that’s Methodist through Shirley’s eyes. Catholics [say that] if you don’t have a baby baptized it’s bad. We believe babies are a part of God. Basically showing it’s bringing someone into the Christian church. It’s dying and being brought back to life in the traditional sense.”
Baptism is when a person chooses to accept God, and they are dunked in water to show that they trust God, and to represent dying and being reborn. Catholics do not completely submerge a baby when they baptize him/her; they only pour water over the baby’s forehead.
Catholics aren’t the only ones who baptize babies. “Our kids get completely dunked, ” says Patelos. “For Orthodox it’s Baptism, Chrismation, first Communion and Confirmation all in one go. After you go through that, you’re entitled to all the Rights in the Church.”
The way I see it, Baptism is very much like a cleansing in Paganism. Water washes away negativity and cleanses both physically and spiritually. This cleansing can be used for tools, as well as for initiation. There are many different ways a Pagan can use water to cleanse. Sometimes different oils or herbs can be mixed in, as with the Orthodox Baptism to add blessing properties. Often salt will be added to the water, which makes it holy because salt is part of the earth. Another common additive is rose oil for both its blessing and cleansing properties. A tool that will be used for magickal rituals can be dunked into a goblet of water and left in the moonlight overnight to be cleansed. Some initiations use this water and its additives to draw a pentacle on the forehead of an initiate. Many rituals will vary from tradition to tradition, making it impossible to cover all of them.
Pagans have their form of prayer in spells. I will reiterate that spells will vary in many traditions. Some will be the simple lighting of a candle and wishing. Some will involve chanting or poetry. Some will involve knives, wands, pentacles, circles of candles of every color shape and size, robes, and a script. It just depends on who you’re working with. I prefer the simpler rituals.
I take a candle of the appropriate color (different colors mean different things) , carve what I want down the side with my athame (ritual knife) , such as “good health, ” or “confidence, ” carve the first and last initials of the person who is to receive these things on the bottom, cover the candle with ashes, and light it, letting it burn all the way down. I will frequently sit in front of my altar (usually a table decorated with a cloth, statues of Pagan gods and goddesses, candles, and ritual tools, such as that athame) and think on this act and its results, but I usually do not incorporate words into the spell. I can’t remember where I picked it up, but it is the one spell that has worked for me consistently for the last dozen years.
“I feel that a prayer works the opposite way, ” says Salgamma, in her article “Magick Vs. Prayer” for The Pagan Library, an online Pagan journal. “The prayer is a request to effect a change in the ambient energy and invoke God. This change in energy is slower because it is ‘diluted’ in the surrounding energy and depends solely on faith (‘I believe it will happen, so it will’) .”
I have read of a Wiccan ceremony that may somewhat equate to communion. In the “Cakes and Ale” (Or “Cakes and Wine”) ceremony the bread represents the body of The God, and the wine (red) represents the blood of the Virgin Goddess. The cake does not have to be cake. It can be bread or something else as long as it has been blessed for the purpose of this ritual. Wine can be replaced with juice if necessary. This is a ritual to give thanks to the God and Goddess. After a poem of thanks is recited, all who participate partake of these symbolic food items, and leave what is left as an offering to the deities.
It seems to me that the Sacraments that I’ve covered above all have a Pagan equivalent. Baptism is a cleansing; Communion and the Cakes and Ale Ceremony are symbolic of taking in deity (deities) ; and a prayer is a spell. I have participated in most of these rituals (save the cakes and ale, but I’ve done similar things as well) at various times in my life, and I will say that there is something magickal about all of them.