The Churching

The little pew booklet which my church (the OCA) publishes for the baptismal service provides the text of the entire service of Holy Baptism as currently practiced, along with an introduction to the service to explain what it all means. Different jurisdictions have different practices: some practise the rite of churching on the fortieth day, apart from the baptism, while others combine churching and baptism. In churches that combine them, both the text of the baptismal service and the explanation assume that the candidate to be baptized is an infant. Thus, the service fits well enough into a purely late Byzantine context (in which all were baptized in infancy), but is less well suited to today’s situation, in which a number of baptismal candidates are adults coming to their sacramental initiation after some time spent as catechumens. (A “catechumen” is one under instruction while preparing for baptism; the word comes from the Greek word katecheo, “to instruct”.)

Our current version of the baptismal service is the product of a long development. In the early church, most baptismal candidates were adults, or, if not adults, children old enough to answer for themselves. Infants were baptized, but they were hardly the majority. The ancient rites accordingly provided a service wherein the adult convert becomes a catechumen, and then another service to be held months or years later when the convert had concluded the lengthy catechumenate and was finally baptized. Our present version of the baptismal service combines these two different rites into one, and also attaches other rites to it as well—namely, the churching of mother and child, and a final tonsuring of the baptized. In this article, we will examine the first part of the rite, that of the churching.

The rite of churching as presented in our current texts is in some state of confusion. The prayer for the child, for example, presupposes that the child’s baptism takes place at some future day: “You [God] have brought him [the child] into being and have shown him the physical light and have appointed him to be made worthy in due time of the spiritual light.” The words I have italicized reveal that the prayer assumes that the baptism of the child does not occur at the same time as the churching, but “in due time”—i.e. at a later date—yet in the service book, the baptism occurs during this same extended service. What’s going on?

In a word, historical development is going on. In the early eastern church, children were “churched” (i.e. brought into the liturgical assembly) on the fortieth day of their life, but not baptized until later. It was otherwise in the western part of the church, where a different understanding of original sin increasingly prevailed. There, it was felt that children dying unbaptized would be lost, and so the age of baptism was lowered to a time immediately after the child’s birth. St. Cyprian, for example, thought that there was no reason to wait for baptism until the child was eight days old (on the analogy of circumcision). The infant could be baptized on the third day of its life. The eastern Fathers did not feel that infants dying without baptism would be lost, and so they had no qualms about delaying baptism until the child was older. Thus, the churching prayer of the fortieth day assumes the child is unbaptized, and will not be baptized until later. As Byron Stuhlman said in his book on baptism The Initiatory Process in the Byzantine Tradition, “In present usage the original purpose of these prayers is not readily apparent.” That is, to put it more bluntly, liturgical changes need to be made if our praxis is to make sense and be consistent with what we are actually praying.

We therefore begin by asking, “What is churching? What are we trying to accomplish?” The Byzantine text contains “a prayer when the child enters the church on the fortieth day after his birth.” A Russian text (found in Hapgood’s edition of the service) describes the child as “being churched, that is, to make a beginning of being taken into the Church.” It seems that the point of the rite of churching is to welcome the newborn child liturgically into the church for its first visit there. And since the newborn spent its entire life up until then with its mother, this visit also represents the mother’s return to church after having been away since giving birth. We therefore have, in fact, two churchings: that of the child, and that of its mother. It is apparent that neither event need necessarily coincide with the child’s baptism, and in fact, the prayers used presuppose that the baptism is still some time in the future (“in due time”).

The mother’s churching represents the Church’s liturgical “welcome back” as the mother returns to the Eucharistic assembly. The normal time for being away was forty days, since this was about how long the body required to recover after child-bearing, and also recalled the forty days which the Lord’s Mother took before she came to the Temple to be ritually purified after her own birth-giving. (The Old Testament prescribed a forty-day period prior to offering the sacrifice for purification in the case of giving birth to a boy, and eighty days in the case of a girl.) Prominent in the prayers for the returning mother are prayers for the purification of her ritual uncleanness, since birth-giving as well as menstruation rendered one ritually unclean in the religious thought of the ancient world. This uncleanness and impurity had nothing to do with sin. The person rendered unclean was not regarded as being sinful, simply as being ineligible for offering sacrifice or performing religious rites. (We note that the Mother of God was purified from such uncleanness also; see Luke 2:22f). The question arises: should these prayers be expunged from the text? Do we still believe that birth-giving renders the mother ritually unclean?

The question is larger than one might think, for it includes not simply a discussion of birth-giving and menstruation, but also the whole concept of clean-unclean which undergirded all ancient religion, both Jewish and pagan. The early church was of two minds on the subject. Some, such as Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria writing in the third century, thought such religious categories were still binding on Christians, and that therefore menstruating women should not receive Holy Communion. Others, like the author of the third century Syrian Didascalia, thought that such categories did not bind Christians, and that such women could still receive Holy Communion during their periods. It therefore asks women, “If the Holy Spirit is within you, why do you isolate your soul [during your periods] and not approach the works of the Holy Spirit [i.e. the Eucharist]?” The question of whether or not ritual impurity should be of concern to Christians is a complex one. Some material on it may be found here.

The child’s churching consists of it being signed with the Sign of the Cross, accompanied by prayers for protection and for eventual initiation into the flock of Christ through baptism. This is the core of the early Byzantine ritual. This latter concluded with the priest taking the child, bowing before the Holy Table, and saying the Nunc Dimittis, the Song of Simeon. Later on, it seems that this rite was expanded to include the priest carrying the child through the church and stopping at several places in the nave to make the Sign of the Cross with the child (not on the child). These stops and prayers at strategic places—immediately upon entering the nave, in the middle of the nave, and at the front, before the Holy Doors—represent the child’s full introduction to the sacred building. It is as if the church says to its newest member, “See? This is where you will be worshipping from now on.”

Then follows a final ritual in our modern practice, in which male infants are carried through the altar area, whereas female infants are brought only up to the Holy Doors. Why make a difference between boys and girls? One explanation suggests that this difference is a sign that males may become ministers of the altar, whereas females may not. This suggestion lacks plausibility, and looks very like an attempt to ground the difference in a possible future choice of the infant, whereas it seems clear enough that it is simply the result of a cultural prejudice against females. But either way, it is inappropriate for any person to enter the altar area while still unbaptized, be they male or female. The young child is at this point not even a catechumen, and entry into the altar should not be considered for any such infant until he or she has been baptized.

Even stranger is the practice of some of churching the child after baptism. If the point of the churching is for the child “to make a beginning of being taken into the Church” (i.e. the child’s first experience of the sacred temple), what is to be gained by churching the child after he has not only been in the sacred temple for the entirety of the service, but has also been baptized and chrismated? In baptism and chrismation, the child is forgiven, cleansed, born again, given the Holy Spirit, and made a child of God and an heir of the Kingdom of Heaven. Would could a rite of churching possibly add to that? That is no doubt why the ancient Byzantine rite assumed that churching happened before baptism. After baptism, such a churching would be clearly superfluous.

The rite of churching is an important one, for it reveals that the church temple is a Christian’s second home. Just as taking the newborn from the hospital to its parents’ home for the first time is a precious milestone, so is taking the child to the church temple. Every Sunday and feast day, the child will be at church (or should be). The churching of both mother and child shows that church attendance is central to a life of Christian discipleship.

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Fr. Lawrence was formerly an Anglican priest, graduating from Wycliffe…
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