Earlier this month (on February 2), the church commemorated the entry of our Lord into the Temple shortly after his birth—the Feast of the Meeting or Presentation of our Lord. (In some traditions, it is known as Candlemas or the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin.) The story is found in the Gospel according to Luke 2:22–38. After forty days (i.e. the time of Mary’s “purification according to the law” (Lk. 2:22)), Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the temple to present Him to the Lord (Lk. 2:22). According to the story, they meet a man at the temple, Simeon, to whom it had been revealed that he would not see death before he had seen the Messiah (Lk. 2-26). Upon seeing Jesus, he proclaims the famous words that are now prayed at every Vespers service in the Orthodox Church (or at Evensong or Compline in the Anglican, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic traditions, the prayer known in Latin as Nunc Dimittis): “Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace, according to Your word; for my eyes have seen Your salvation which You have prepared before the face of all peoples, a light to bring revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel.”
Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace, according to Your word; for my eyes have seen Your salvation which You have prepared before the face of all peoples, a light to bring revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel.
Prayers for the Newborn
The Orthodox Church continues this tradition today. On (or around) forty days after the birth of a child, the parents bring the newborn to the church. The earliest book of liturgical texts known to us, the Barberini Codex (Gk. 336), includes a prayer for the child that harkens back to the Presentation of Jesus and the witness of Simeon and asks God to bless the child and keep him/her safe until the day of their baptism when they will enter into the life of Christ more formally. (Today, this is the third prayer of what is now the Rite of Churching of the Mother and Child. An analysis of the prayers for the mother will be the topic of a future post.)
The Rite of Churching
As part of the Rite of Churching today, the parents bring the infant to the doors of the church. The priest greets the family at the entrance. After the prayers for the (mother and) child, the child is placed into the arms of the priest and carried into the church in the midst of the community and escorted to the altar area. (Originally, this ritual movement was reserved for after the baptism of the child, but at some point in the history of the rite, it became associated with the prayers of the fortieth day and, depending on the tradition, is either done before or after baptism.) Until at least the 15th century, the child was then taken into the altar area where the priest circled the altar table, bowing at each side. However, sometime around the 12th-14th century in some places, a distinction began to be made according to the biological sex of the child. At first, both sexes were still taken into the altar area and the priest would continue to bow to all four sides of the table for a male child, but only reverence three sides for a female child, excluding the west side (i.e. the side of the Presider). Some have suggested that this aligned with the orders of the day—with males having the possibility to become priests and females, deaconesses. Eventually (perhaps after the disappearance of the female diaconate), females were excluded from the altar area altogether; they were only brought to the entrance of the Holy Gate in front of the iconostasis at the time of their churching. This practice has continued until this day. Usually, it is justified with this same appeal to possible future orders for the male (i.e. he “could be a priest someday”). However, the possible future ministerial work of the young female is not taken into account (i.e. she “could be a deaconess someday”).
A Return to an Older Practice
Recently (i.e. within the past fifty years), some quarters of the Orthodox world have reevaluated the practice of offering only males to God in the altar area and offering females outside of it, emphasizing that we are all made in the image and likeness of God and therefore all infants should be treated similarly at their churching. A number of parishes (and, in some cases, entire dioceses) have returned to the older practice of presenting all infants to God in the altar area. In my post last month (See: https://www.praytellblog.com/index.php/2019/01/29/by-what-measure/), I asked the question, “By what metric do we measure a liturgical reform?” Some have argued that treating males and females the same at their churching is capitulating to “political correctness” or is somehow “conflating the distinction of the genders.” However, in this case, the renewal of the original practice of churching infants similarly not only has historical precedence and the weight of Tradition, but is more theologically sound. The churching of a child is an offering to God and the altar is the place where we make such offerings.
The Joy of Welcoming a Child
This past Sunday, I witnessed one happy family continuing this tradition—a mother and father brought their newborn daughter to church. After the prayer(s) at the entrance to the nave, the mother gave the child to the priest who carried the young girl into the church amidst the community with her parents and her two older sisters following. As the priest walked into the worship space, he proclaimed that this child of God was “churched in the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit.” The entire assembly assented with their “Amen.” As he approached the altar area, the choir burst into song—singing the Prayer of Simeon. The family waited patiently at the foot of the steps of the altar area while he took the young girl into the space and around the altar table, offering her to God. The joy was palpable. Through Christ, God’s revelation has indeed come to all people. Her life in Christ is just beginning. Welcome little one.