The Churching of Women and it Relation to the Feast of the Presentation

013014As we prepare for the Feast of the Presentation (Sunday, February 2), I though it might be appropriate to describe a liturgy of the Church that is largely lost to most today, “The Churching of Women.” To some extent it is subsumed in the modern Rite of Baptism with the blessing of the Mother, but it is not what it used to be. We CAN still celebrate this for women who ask, and I often do celebrate it especially when I do extraordinary form Baptisms.

The Churching of Women is very rooted int he feast of the Presentation. 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 in the Old Testament concept. 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 widely intact until very recent times and as we have said, 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. There is also a blessing of the Mother at the Rite of Infant Baptism.

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 defilement 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 at the presentation, 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. Pope Benedict’s  Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum 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”

26 Replies to “The Churching of Women and it Relation to the Feast of the Presentation”

  1. Msgr. Pope, I often agree with you on this blog…here I don’t. St. Paul said the Law was dead. That purification was part of the Jewish law, whether it was undergone by a nameless woman in Israel or the Mother of God. Pope Gregory not withstanding, I cannot see how you divorce this practice from the idea that women were ritually defiled by childbirth. Unless you turn it into something else, like a blessing for mothers. Oh wait–the Novus Ordo allows for that.

    I’m all for practices that value mothers and women in the Church in general. There are better practices than this one.

    1. Actually though isn’t your disagreement with the Church which has had this rite for 2000 years and recently revived it in Summorum Pontificum? I think you go too far in calling an aspect of the dead law given that. Also, did you read the prayers? It’s OK not to like it and to say you think other things practices, but I would caution that you go to far in your critique for the reasons stated.

      1. Ritual uncleanness was imposed only on Jewish women and only by the Law of Moses. Its effect was to bar a woman from entering the Temple for forty days if her child was a boy,and eighty days if a girl. What I am drawn to is the fact that Jesus was presented in the Temple at the same time, and for the distinct ceremony of the consecration and redemption of the first-born.

        This is a ceremony which Orthodox Jews observe to this day, and they do it when the child is thirty-one days old. It was never compulsory to do it only in the Temple, otherwise the Jews would have discontinued it when the Temple was destroyed. If the father chose to redeem his son in the Temple and on time, the mother would not have been able to be present.

        What was so compellingly unique about Jesus that required a delay of nine days so that He could be presented in the Temple and in the presence of Mary? My answer is that the consecration and presentation of God the Son to the Father is per se an act of public worship and so had to be done in the Temple if sacrilege was to be avoided. It is also the quintessence of Christian worship, and so for lawfulness had to be done with the attendance of the only human person then capable of it. The Presentation was the first stage in the sacrifice of Jesus which was completed only at the end of His life on the Cross, again with Mary in attendance.

  2. I wish I had known when I had my last child (my first after I converted) that I could request this rite. Many of my friends who attend the extraordinary form receive it but we do not have it available where I live.

    Thank you for taking the time to write this and to share the origins and meaning behind the Churching of Women. I find it a beautiful practice and a special blessing from God to new mothers who need those extra graces during those early months of a baby’s life.

  3. Msgr. Pope, I was taught that the lengthy ritual uncleanness was because childbirth is so holy and precious. We take more time and effort when something is precious. The traditional Chinese mother stays home for a month after giving birth when she is waited on and pampered and given nutritious food to regain her strength. This first month is called Confinement. Perhaps the Jewish law is something similar.

    1. Fr. Pacwa interprets it this way as well. His take is that the Jews understood that this blood, either menstrual or after birth, was somehow connected to life and so it was important to “wash the holiness” off (an odd concept, but work with it a minute and it makes sense) before the woman could enter back into the life of the community (think toughing the Ark…)

    2. All interesting, but the main point I want to keep emphasizing is that the Catholic Rite has nothing to do with ritual uncleanness. It is a blessing and welcoming back of a mother after child-birth.

  4. As a woman, I would like to say I love this, but you forgot to mention something that make it not a ritual cleansing.
    There is an allowance for women, whom just gave birth, to not attend mass for a period of some weeks; the blessing of women was more a receiving rite (aka welcome back sister) than a cleansing one. It is a didbit I love about the Catholic Church, they are saying We understand you just gave birth to a new life and are caring for it almost constantly; so when you feel better and aren’t sleeping every spare moment, the Church is here for you.

    1. Yes, and again, to be clear, the “Churching of Women” is not a purification rite. In the article above I think it is stated rather clearly:

      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 defilement 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.

  5. In an online NFP group to which I belong, someone pointed out that the laws of uncleanness during and after a woman’s period meant that a devout Jewish couple would most likely be having relations smack dab in the middle of the fertile time every month (for of course God wanted them to have their quiver full). These post-birth laws also seem to line up somewhat with the possibility of the return of fertility (and they also seem to enforce a much-needed break from sexual activity for the woman after the trauma of childbirth). I dunno, maybe it’s blasphemous to suggest that God was manipulating the Jews in this way…but the idea interests me. It’s hard for a modern woman not to take offense at the “uncleanness” idea. But I do like what the Church did to transform this custom.

  6. Father, was the “offering of the first born male” and the purification of the woman supposed to be done at the same day?

  7. I thought Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt and stayed there until Herod died. So how did this purification take place after 40 days? Herod lived longer than that.

    1. The Magi/flight-to-Egypt narrative is from Matthew; the Presentation narrative is from Luke. Matthew never says how long after Jesus’s birth the Magi arrived. Judging by Herod’s order to kill all boys in Bethlehem under age two, some considerable time may have elapsed between the Nativity and the visit of the Magi, giving plenty of time for Mary’s purification and Jesus’s Presentation in the Temple. Harmonizing the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke, the (rough) timeline probably goes like this:
      Nativity (Luke/Matthew)
      Circumcision (Luke)
      Presentation (Luke)
      Magi visit (Matthew)
      Flight to and sojourn in Egypt (Matthew)
      Attempted return to Judea? (Matthew)
      Return to Nazareth (Matthew/Luke)

      Hope this helps.

  8. @ Isobel You are correct. The 40 days of “uncleanliness” is about the same amount of time modern doctors generally tell spouses to abstain from sex after childbirth (6 weeks). The purpose of this ritual “cleansing” was not to cleanse to woman but to protect her.

    Similarly God permitted divorce in the Old Testament not because He approved of divorce but because the other alternatives a husband would pursue, according to the culture of the time, would be to kill his wife or sell her. This “divorce” was permitted to protect to woman. This was later cleared up by Christ when he restored and defined what marriage is.

  9. Another devotion cast onto the junk heap of history. I think… the traditional forms will reemerge. All revolutions eventually come to an end.

  10. I just think it is amazing that this is the first time that the Temple first sees the True Ark of the Covenant and the Word for the first time in years…

  11. I agree. I also believe we should require every man entering the RCIA process to be ritually circumsized.

    1. You seem upset. What is that all about? Also what are you “agreeing” to? The article makes clear that the Jewish practice of “purifying” women is not the Christian understanding. Finally since the practice is not required why do you speak of “requiring”

      You seem upset….why?

  12. I agree. I also believe we should require every man entering the RCIA process to be ritually circumcised.

  13. Msgr, I think your intentions are well meaning and perhaps this ritual deserves a fair re-consideration–but with its origins in problematic Ancient Jewish tradition and the current atmosphere in which Pope Francis has called for a new theology of women and a greater appreciation of women’s role in the church I think not too many women (even many traditional and devout ones) are going to join the fight to resurrect this ritual.

  14. I remember that after the birth of my fifth child, we had moved into a new parish. I called the rectory and asked if I could receive the blessing for new mothers after the noon Mass on the next Sunday….I was told they were too busy counting money from the envelopes then…..I found a new parish the next day.

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