By Father Andrew Harrison
When there is a new birth in a Parish, the priest is called to offer prayers on the first, eighth and on the fortieth day for mother and child. When I read these prayers, I explain that they are a carryover from the Old Testament. Personally they are embarrassing when I read them. The new born child is blessed but the mother is cleansed from defilement. Even anyone who has touched her must be cleansed. Since we are no longer under the Old Law, I often have wondered why we still have these prayers. Are they just symbolic or is the mother truly defiled by the birth of a child. We do hear in Psalm 51, that we are conceived in sin “from my mother’s womb”. In the fortieth day churching service, we hear words like, purify her from all uncleanness, or in some translations, filth.
These prayers and other problems concerning women and gender differences in the rites of churching are explained in an article in the 2012 addition of St. Vladimir’s quarterly entitled. The Historical Rite of Churching by Matthew Streett Vol. 56 Number 1
The author does agree that the Christian rites of Churching are strongly influenced by Jewish rites which appear in two places in the Old Testament, Lev. 12:1-8, Lev. 15:19—33 and one place in the New Testament, Luke 2:22-33. They are symbolic since Mary and Joseph both underwent purification at the birth of Jesus by offering a “sin offering” of two turtle doves or young pigeons. (Lev 12:19) This does create theological problems because the Virgin Mary was without personal sin and had no relationship with Joseph. Why would it be necessary that a “sin offering” be made when Jesus was presented in the Temple?
The author of the article quotes a study which suggests that the word in Hebrew translated into Greek does not mean “sin offering” but rather “purification offering”. Sin offerings were only made when there was a transgression of the law. Purification offerings were made to restore ritual purity. Old Testament laws related to childbirth and women were not about impurity in an ethical sense but rather about physical bodily uncleanness. The act of giving birth, as with menstrual flow, produces a quantity of blood. Bodily discharges both male and female were treated with the same regulations. The origin of these laws may come from ancient taboos involved in the creation of life. Uncleanness in the Bible is not sin but the physical state which one has to recover as with a disease.
Gender differences in the rite of churching are another issue. In the present rite, male babies are blessed and taken into the altar while female babies are only taken as far as the iconostas. This has been explained as symbolizing that only males can be ordained priests in the Orthodox Church. In the ancient liturgical texts, gender differences do not exist. Fr. Alexander Schmemann writes in his book Of Water and The Spirit that the rites originated from pre-baptismal churching of both the mother and child and post baptismal bringing the child into the church carried by the priest. The author presents a historical study of the ancient liturgical texts. In his summary he notes that the service has been changed multiple times as the theology has shifted. In the pre-iconoclastic period, gender differences were not involved and the sanctuary was not used. In the post-iconoclastic period, both male and females babies were taken into the altar venerating three sides of the Altar table while male babies venerated all four sides. A later period reveals that all baptized children were taken into the altar. “The key point here is that while gender differences did exist in earlier forms of the rite, those gender differences did not prevent female children from the sanctuary.“ He raises the question that restoration of an earlier gender blind practice is appropriate now.
In the Russian Orthodox liturgical Tradition, mothers never see or participate in the baptism of their child. Mothers are barred from the church until the fortieth day. An unbaptized child is not permitted into the church until his/her baptism which would take place before the fortieth day. The churching of the child completes the baptismal ceremony. Male babies are taken through the north door of the Iconostas, behind the altar, out the south door, then blessed with the words “In the Midst of the congregation he/she will sing praises.” Female babies do not enter behind the iconostas but are blessed with the same words and handed to the god parents.
Since St. Luke reflects a variety of liturgical traditions and practices: babies are churched some times before the baptism with the mother present or not in the Greek practice. Sometimes the fortieth day is adhered to and sometimes the mother is in church before. Unbaptized babies are brought to the liturgy for as much a year before the baptism.
Matthew Streett concludes his article questioning the current form of the service with its Old Testament emphases on uncleanness, ritual purification and gender differences. He quotes Father Calivas of Holy Cross Theological Seminary essays on Theology and Liturgy. “when the church remains unresponsive….. to emerging needs then individuals for good or for ill seize the initiative”. The author calls for a discussion by bishops, clergy and laity “educating themselves on the theological issues and finding an appropriate liturgical response to the Churching rite. “Discussion is neither rebellion nor challenge to hierarchical authority but when done properly and reverently it is the path to the mind of God.”