Today is the feast of The Presentation of our Lord to the Temple. I would like to say a word about the ritual of “Churching” our children on the 40th day from their birth, which is a Jewish practice we Orthodox Christians continue to follow. Personally, I think that presenting our children to the Lord, whether they are male or female, first born or otherwise, is proper and commendable. For those not familiar with the ritual, let me explain.
The rite consists of four prayers: the first prayer is for the mother and the child, the second is for just the mother, the third is only for the child and the fourth is for the child and for everyone else present. The prayers for the mother are especially for her “cleansing,” but are also offered as a thanksgiving for having been preserved through the birth giving, so that she may enter the Church and receive the Holy Sacraments (Holy Communion).
As I said, coming to church to present her child to the Lord is proper and right. Whether it should be on the 40th day is questionable. The 40 days is a period of time long enough to allow the mother to recuperate and regain her strength after a difficult childbirth that in the past used to be an ordeal greater than it is now, endangering the mother, who in many instances lost her life. The idea is that the temple, and in our case the church, would be the first place for the mother to go. Today typically mothers go home the day after they give birth at the hospital and a day or two later they go to the supermarket and soon after that to the mall. Well, the church should be the first place to go to, before they go anywhere else, whether that is after ten days or two days.
Coming now to the prayers of purification for the mother, we should say that they are based on the Mosaic Law, and have no place in our Church. They are totally inappropriate and an embarrassment for the priest who reads them, for the mother, and everyone else, as they refer to uncleanness, impurity, stain and sin. In our faith the woman is not rendered ritually “unclean” either when she conceives, or when she gives birth, not even during menstruation. She can come to church at any time, kiss the icons, light a candle, and receive Holy Communion, if she is otherwise spiritually prepared, like anyone else. These customs or superstitions should come to an end. The two prayers for the mother should be officially removed from the prayer book. (A conference in Constantinople expressed the view that the “practices and prayers do not properly express the theology of the Church regarding the dignity of God’s creation of woman and her redemption in Christ Jesus.”)
The “churching” ritual for the infant, however, should be retained, by keeping the other two prayers, with the “Churching” ritual. Also, the current custom, according to which, “If the child is male the Priest carries him into the Altar; if a female, the child is carried only as far as the Holy Doors,” should no longer be followed. An un-baptized infant has no business in the Altar, which is reserved for clergy only, including lower clergy like acolytes.
Final thought. As I was writing, it dawned at me why women are not being ordained in the Orthodox Church (or the Roman Catholic Church for that matter). It is because of becoming ritually unclean during their menstruation and after giving birth. How could they perform their sacerdotal duties during those times? Voila! Don’t dismiss it—this is the real reason. (So if we get away with the ritual—and the faulty reasoning behind it—do we clear the way for their introduction into the holy orders?)
Churching, called The Churching of Women in the West (Roman Catholicism and Protestantism) has for the most part been officially abolished, if not officially, at least in practice. Unless changes are being made, the ritual is bound to follow the same route in the Orthodox Church.