On Feb. 2, we celebrated the feast of the Presentation of the Lord. It is the day we remember Mary and Joseph bringing the newborn Jesus to the Temple 40 days after his birth. It is there that they meet Simeon and Anna the prophetess.
|Father Nick Nelson
Handing on the Faith
In the Old Covenant, mothers were obliged to be purified following childbirth before partaking again in communal worship. They were to go to a priest and offer a lamb if she could afford it or two doves or pigeons as an offering. After this ritual offering, she would be ritually clean. In the Old Covenant, it was also the case that first-born sons needed to be redeemed. The first-born belonged to God and was to serve him as a priest. Therefore, if the family didn’t want him to be a priest, the son and to be redeemed or bought back from the Lord. It was necessary that the family pay a priest five shekels to do this.
These were the circumstances of their visit to the Temple 40 days after Jesus was born, although as I wrote last month it wasn’t absolutely necessary for them to do this. Mary was the perpetual virgin, immaculately conceived. She didn’t need to be purified as there was no change to her bodily integrity during childbirth, and Jesus wasn’t redeemed from the Lord but actually presented to the Lord. As faithful Jews, they went to the Temple to be an example to others.
While the purification of women following childbirth and the redemption of the first-born son became unnecessary in the New Covenant, which Jesus inaugurated by his self-offering on Calvary, there is still a little-known Christian ritual and blessing for mothers following childbirth. It is called the “Churching of Women.”
Centuries ago, when the infant and maternal mortality was high, the baby was brought to the church for baptism within the first few days, even a few hours after birth. Most times, the mother was not yet well enough to leave the bed or at least leave home and make the trip to the church for the baptism. So the baptism was generally done without the mother present.
Older people today have told me that even as recently as 50 or 60 years ago, mothers still normally didn’t come to the baptism. However, it wasn’t necessarily that they were still bedridden but that they were home getting things ready for the reception and party following the baptism! In any case, and in lieu of the mother taking part in the baptism, there was a special ritual and blessing for her when she finally did enter the church for the first time after giving birth. This is called “The Churching of Women.”
St. Charles Borremeo said it was a praiseworthy custom for the mother to present herself in the church as soon as she is able to leave the house. Realize that in this ritual there is no sense of the woman needing to be purified. Rather, churching is the way for the mother to give thanks to God for her child and her health and pray to God for the graces necessary to raise her child in the faith. Churching would even take place if the mother lost her child to stillbirth. It showed her trust in God even in spite of that tragic event.
Churching begins with the mother kneeling at the threshold of the church with a lighted candle, and the priest blesses her with holy water. He recites Psalm 24, after which the priest puts the end of his stole on the mother’s hand and leads her to the sanctuary. praying “Enter into the temple of God, adore the Son of the blessed Virgin Mary, who gave you fruitfullness of offspring.” This is an image of Christ leading his sister to the altar.
Outside the sanctuary she kneels again giving thanks to God for her child. The priest then says this powerful blessing: “Almighty, everlasting God, through the delivery of the blessed Virgin Mary, Thou hast turned into joy the pains of the faithful in childbirth; look mercifully upon this Thy handmaid, coming in gladness to Thy temple to offer up her thanks: and grant that after this life, by the merits and intercession of the same blessed Mary, she may merit to arrive, together with her offspring, at the joys of everlasting happiness. Through Christ our Lord.” He then sprinkles her once again with holy water in the form of a cross.
I’ve had the blessing to celebrate this ritual a number of times, and it is quite beautiful and meaningful to the women. It is a thanksgiving to God, a celebration of femininity, and a blessing upon mother as she begins to raise this child. It is short, probably no longer than ten minutes.
I would encourage all mothers do this. Contact your pastor. It would be best to do it the first time you return to church even if it was before the date of baptism. It could even be the same day as the baptism, just immediately prior to the baptism. I’ve done that before.
Giving birth is a big deal, it’s important that there is some solemnity around this occasion. Churching of women is a great tradition in the church giving proper solemnity to motherhood!
Father Nick Nelson is pastor of Queen of Peace and Holy Family parishes in Cloquet. He studied at The Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome. Reach him at [email protected].