In the Eastern Orthodox Church, we welcome a woman and her newborn child back into the church on the 40th day after birth. Often this happens just before the child’s Baptism into the Church, but not always, depending on the circumstances. During the churching of mother and child, the priest will say certain prayers for the mother and others for her baby. What is really happening during this short but joyful service? We explore that question in this post!
Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
What is Churching?
The Orthodox Church sets aside a sacred period of 40 days for the mother to recuperate after the birth of her child. During this time, she cares for and bonds with her child, while her husband and other loved ones take care of her. Even in heartbreaking cases in which the child does not survive, the Church still counsels the woman to remain at home to heal physically and emotionally. Typically, the mother will not receive the Eucharist during the 40 days, unless her life is in danger.
On the 40th day, the woman and her child become reunited with the Church, receiving special blessings. In the Byzantine rite, the services for the blessing of the mother and the presentation of the child take place together.
Does it have to be 40 days?
In contemporary practice, it is rarely medically necessary and sometimes not possible for the mother to remain in the home for 40 days after birth. If your circumstances prevent you from taking this sacred time to heal and bond with your little one, speak with your priest. He will help you determine the best course of action.
Note that the Churching of Mother and Child is separate from two other rites that take place at childbirth: the Prayers on the First Day After Childbirth, and the Naming of the Child on the Eighth Day. These usually take place in the home. In some traditions, it is customary to baptize the child on the eighth day, emulating the Old Testament rite of circumcision. In that case, the naming of the child would take place in the temple; however, the mother would not attend; in her place, the godparents would present the child. The common custom is to name the child on the eighth day and him after the churching on the fortieth.
Read More: Is Infant Baptism Biblical?
Where did churching come from?
The rite of churching is reminiscent of the Old Testament ceremony of purification (Lev. 12: 2-8) and the Presentation of our Lord at the Temple (Luke 2: 22-29), which took place 40 days after Christ’s birth. In accordance with Mosaic Law, the Theotokos presented the infant Christ to God in the Temple, bringing with her the appropriate sacrifice.
Blessing for the mother
On the day of her churching, the mother comes to the temple to receive a blessing as she begins attending church and receiving the Holy Mysteries again. The mother typically brings her child with her; they are accompanied by the intended godparents who will stand at the child’s baptism. They all stand together in the narthex of the temple, facing east toward the altar. The priest blesses them and says prayers for the woman and the child, gives thanks for their wellbeing, and asks God’s grace and blessings upon them.
In the churching service, the priest says a couple prayers of purification for the mother. Some Orthodox bishops and priests take issue with the language of these prayers. As a result, some variation now exists in the wording. This post explains the ontological, pedagogical, and eschatological importance of preserving the original wording of those prayers.
Churching of the child
In some traditions, the churching always comes before the baptism, which is the historical norm. In other traditions, however, if the infant has already been baptized, the priest then performs the churching of the child. If not, he does the churching immediately after the baptism. There are various forms of this service among different Orthodox traditions. In general, however, they do share a similar structure.
Outline of the service
To church the child, the priest takes her from her mother, lifts her up at the doors of the church, making the sign of the Cross with her body. He then carries her into the center of the nave as he says, “I will go into Thy House. I will worship toward Thy Holy Temple in fear of Thee.”
Stopping in the center, he adds, “The servant of God (Name) is churched, in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen. In the midst of the congregation I will sing praises unto Thee.”
Afterward, the priest walks up to the Holy Doors and says, “The servant of God (Name) is churched, in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.”
In some traditions, the priest takes the child (boy or girl) through the south deacon’s door into the sanctuary. He goes around the Holy Table, stopping at each side. The priest will finish either at the front of the altar (boy) or the north side (girl). He then brings the child out and returns her to her mother. This is the historical norm and the most common practice among Orthodox churches.
In other traditions, the priest may place female children on the solea in front of the icon of the Theotokos. Male children, on the other hand, he may carry through the south deacon’s door into the sanctuary. After passing around the back of the Holy Table, he will then exit the altar through the north deacon’s door and place the child onto the solea.
The priest then says the Song of Simeon and ends with the dismissal. After this, he blesses the child with the Sign of the Cross on her forehead, mouth and heart, and returns her to her mother.
Variations in the service
Among the different traditions within the Church, there are some variations in the churching service for the child. The two biggest variations are:
- whether or not to church unbaptized children
- whether both male and female children are brought into the sanctuary behind the iconostasis
Depending on the parish you visit, the priest may conduct churchings differently for male versus female children. St. Symeon of Thessaloniki mentions the churching of infants in his writings, but does not make any distinction regarding the sex of the baby as a condition of bringing him/her into the holy Altar. He writes, “Now if the infant is already baptized, (the priest) brings it even into the Altar […] but if the child be not yet baptized, he stands before the holy Doors” (Migne, Patrologia Graeca 155:212b).
It seems that the Church’s tradition does not admit any criteria—either sex or baptismal status—as conditions for bringing the infant into the Altar. While the criterion of baptism possesses a consistent and sound logic to it, none of the manuscripts of the churching service make any mention of any criteria for bringing a churched infant into the holy Altar. In fact, the churching service presumes that the child is not baptized. Additionally, the manuscripts of this service specifically mention the bearing the infant into the Altar, most times irrespective of sex. In short, the service is about the dedication of infants to God. The fact that the infants are brought by Christian parents should be the most important qualification; we should avoid splitting hairs over accuracy.
What about the father of the child?
Many often wonder whether the father of the child gets any special blessings after forty days. The fathers do not physically undergo childbirth in the same manner as the mothers, so they typically return to the divine services immediately after the birth. Since the father returns to the Church, he continues to receive the Eucharist and the other Holy Mysteries. Not only that, but he takes his place as the head of the family by attending the divine services in his wife and child’s absence, praying in their behalf to the Lord.
The Church therefore reserves the blessings and churching for the recovering mother and her newborn.
The Eastern Orthodox churching service for mothers and their newborns honors the sacred time spent recovering and bonding after birth. It also celebrates the return of the mother to the Church, along with presenting her child to God for the first time in the Temple, as Christ Himself was presented before Righteous Simeon. What a joy to behold!
Keep Reading: Handling Children In Church