‘Churching of Women,’ a purification rite

Published 10:29 am Thursday, January 26, 2012

First of all, let me thank everyone who has warmly welcomed me to the area as the vicar of St. Luke’s Anglican Church. It is lovely to be here and it is lovely here!
On Feb. 2, the church has historically celebrated an event known by three names: The Presentation of Christ in the Temple and The Purification of Mary and Candlemas. This last is that Old English way of saying, “mass for [fill in the blank].” “Christmas,” of course, refers to the mass in honor of the birth of Christ. “Candlemas” is known as such because the candles which would be used in the church building during the year were blessed on that day, because Simeon referred to Christ at the Presentation as one “To be a light to lighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of thy people Israel” (Luke 2:32).
Like the “Churching of Women” or “Thanksgiving of Women after Child-birth,” which was a rite celebrated by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans and, more marginally, Methodists and Lutherans, celebration of this event has gone by the wayside and perhaps for the same reason. It is largely, I think, misunderstood in our time.
I understand that it was not unusual before the Second Vatican Council, which had far-reaching implications beyond Roman Catholicism, for Roman Catholic women to be seen being “churched” (not excommunicated – rather the reverse), being reintegrated into the church after their absence during their delivery and confinement. The service of Churching of Women is, indeed, a purification rite and a New Testament continuation of Old Testament practice (Leviticus 12).
But it is perhaps more the modern mind that thinks that childbirth makes a woman unclean, spiritually or physically. It is modern culture, keeping childbirth (as well as death) far from the home, which may allow it to become associated with impurity.
“One goes to the hospital when one is sick, therefore, pregnancy must be a form of sickness because one goes to the hospital” would be an oversimplified form of this false logic.
However, as Richard Hooker, the Anglican Apologist, said in defense of the practice more than 400 years ago, “It is nothing but an overflowing of gall to interpret a woman’s absence from church during the time of her pregnancy in such a way as to judge her unholy or excluded from God’s House according to some ancient Levitical law.… She is not forbidden from entering because of any supposed unholiness, although it is sensible for her to stay away from public gatherings and remain in her own abode for a time.”
Before antibiotics, it was simply safer for women to stay home for a period of time during and after delivery. The Law of Moses was there for the protection of women and motherhood, not for alienating them for any impurity.
Like much of the Law of Moses, in which the physical becomes a sign of the spiritual, the Purification of a woman after childbirth is exactly as it is called now in the Christian Church, a Thanksgiving. This is because if someone does not acknowledge from whence a blessing comes, one is spiritually impure. The lack of acknowledgment of God’s providence is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual illness, which is “dis-graceful.”
The Law of Moses’ requirement to present the child and make sacrifice in the temple, and the historic church’s fulfillment of that law, required the woman to acknowledge from whence came the child. This was and is a spiritual safeguard against the woman (and her whole family) becoming spiritually impure by not returning thanks to God.
– The Rev. Fr. Peter A. Geromel Vicar, St. Luke’s Anglican Church, meeting at Landrum Presbyterian Church

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