While Groundhog Day might receive more press, the Church calendar marks this day as the feast of the Presentation of the Lord. As described in Luke 2: 22-24, following Jewish law, Mary and Joseph brought their first-born son to the Temple to consecrate him to God and offer sacrifice. They were also complying with Jewish purity laws that required Mary to bring an offering 40 days after the birth in order to be “made clean” again. Leviticus 12:1-8 details these rules.
Though purity laws are strange to us and the notion that a natural process like birth or menstruation causes a woman to be unclean might even be offensive, this feast does provide a moment to reflect on childbirth as a sacred event in a woman’s life. We just have to dig a little deeper to find that meaning. Purity laws regulated processes that brought the human and divine into contact. The presence of blood, such as at birth, created this dangerous intermingling. For the Israelites, blood was life, therefore very closely connected to God. The sacredness of blood is why the slaughter of animals is so closely related in Jewish life.
In Giving Birth: Reclaiming Biblical Metaphor for Pastoral Practice, Margaret Hammer discusses how the need to restore the postpartum woman to wholeness after birth can be viewed along the same lines as the requirements for priests and warriors during biblical times. “The priest mediating between God and the people, the warrior offering his life in a holy war, and the woman birthing a child are all specially engaged in God’s work in the world; therefore their wholeness is vital.”
In reality, Hammer says, the purity laws recognize the impact of birth on women and demonstrate awe and reverence for the process itself. On a practical level, the necessity of the woman remaining apart for the purification period after birth provided her with time to rest and recover before resuming responsibilities, as well as bond with her child. It is unfortunate that over time the sense of a woman being “unclean” took on very negative connotations.
Interestingly, the Catholic Church has a rite of blessing for women after childbirth called “Churching of Women.” It was common from the Middle Ages into the 20th century and includes prayers over the woman by the priest at the entrance to the church, often 40 days after the birth. Probably derived from the Jewish tradition, for many centuries it contained a “purification” tone. I was surprised to learn that a revised rite called Blessing after Childbirth was included after Vatican II. It focuses on thanksgiving and prayer for help and protection, though I have never seen it used. (In a sad bit of irony, despite the Church’s pro-life stance the rite is only available for married women!)
Research by a British scholar named Natalie Knödel concludes that historically the Churching of Women rite really was a women’s event, that they requested it and used it as an occasion to celebrate their return to the routine of life, with food and drink and socializing. This sounds like something worth reclaiming for the 21st century! I can imagine groups of warrior-priest mamas of all ages restoring wholeness to the Church through rituals they create to mark the milestone of birthing with prayer, story, song and feasting.
Copyright Peg Conway 2011