Today as I write this it is the Feast of the Presentation (February 2). Some determine this feast to be the definitive end to the Christmas cycle and it is perhaps appropriate that yet another snowfall is descending on Washington. Biblically this feast commemorates the Jewish practice of a woman presenting herself at the temple forty days after the birth of a male child in order to be “purified” and blessed by the priest. Mary as an observant Jew fulfilled this obligation and it is recorded in Luke 2:22-24:
When the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.”
The Jewish practice of “purifying” a woman after childbirth was set forth in the Book of Leviticus 12:1-8:
The LORD said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites: ‘A woman who becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son will be ceremonially unclean for seven days, just as she is unclean during her monthly period. On the eighth day the boy is to be circumcised. Then the woman must wait thirty-three days to be purified from her bleeding. She must not touch anything sacred or go to the sanctuary until the days of her purification are over. If she gives birth to a daughter, for two weeks the woman will be unclean, as during her period. Then she must wait sixty-six days to be purified from her bleeding. ” ‘When the days of her purification for a son or daughter are over, she is to bring to the priest at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting a year-old lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a dove for a sin offering. He shall offer them before the LORD to make atonement for her, and then she will be ceremonially clean from her flow of blood.” ‘These are the regulations for the woman who gives birth to a boy or a girl. If she cannot afford a lamb, she is to bring two doves or two young pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. In this way the priest will make atonement for her, and she will be clean.’ “
As you can see, there is a fairly negative concept at work here. A woman becomes ritually unclean by giving birth. This was due to the flow of blood and/or other fluids at birth. Even more distressing to modern notions is that a woman who gave birth to a daughter was considered ritually unclean for even longer! Alas, it is well that the power of the Church to bind and loose has freed us from this thinking. Keep in mind that this was ceremonial law, not moral law and, hence, the Church is not setting aside immutable moral law in abrogating such notions of ritual impurity.
Nevertheless the custom and instinct of blessing women after childbirth was retained in the Church with an altered understanding from Jewish teaching. That rite came down through the centuries and was intact until very recent times and was referred to in many places as the “Churching of Women.” (The official Latin title of the Rite was actually benedictio mulieris post partum – (the blessing of women after giving birth)). The rite was largely discontinued in the 1960s in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. The Book of Blessings published in 1984 does contain a “Blessing of a Woman after Childbirth” but it is seldom used and is significantly altered from the old rite in use until about 1965.
The reasons for the discontinuance are many. I remember my mother and other women of my mother’s generation saying they had been taught the Jewish history of this rite and thus rejected it for that reason. But the Catholic Church was clear to distinguish its practice from the Jewish roots. Pope Gregory as early as the 6th Century protested any notion that defilment was incurred by childbirth. Further, the prayers of the old “Churching of Women” Rite never mentioned a need for purification and spoke only of blessing and thanksgiving. So those who taught women of my Mother’s generation against this practice were probably engaged more in polemics than true Church history. Another reason for the discontinuance was probably and simply that so many things were dropped during the changes in the wake of the Council.
On this Feast of the Presentation I would like to recommend this beautiful ritual to your attention. In an extended sense it fulfills What Mary did today, forty days after the birth of Christ. Surely we do not understand it in an Old Testament way, but we rescue and fulfill the tradition with the beauty of Christian faith and the dignity of women who are mothers.
I have attached a PDF version of it here: The Churching of Women. Though it has never been required by the Church it is a beautiful way to welcome back and bless a woman who has perhaps been away for a few weeks giving birth. She has labored well for her family, her child and the Church and this ritual can serve simultaneously as a blessing and thanksgiving extended by the Church to the noble women who are our mothers. The blessing can be given after a baptism, after mass, collectively to recent mothers, or individually. It is true that the current baptismal rite contains a blessing for the mother but this older rite is a more single and special blessing. The Pope’s recent Motu Proprio permitting the older forms of the sacraments to be used has made these older rituals also more available. Here is the concluding prayer of the rite:
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.
I looked for a video depicting the Churching of Women but found none. Instead enjoy this video by Shirley Ceasar which celebrates the love of a mother as an image of God’s love: The full cost of my love is “no-charge”