In the last segment, we examined the manuscript tradition that addressed the established practices of the churching rite within the Byzantine liturgical tradition. I now proceed to make my own suggestions for a uniform practice that is theologically sensible and pastorally sensitive.
Theological Reflection and Practical Recommendations
In accordance with the Church’s theological stance as expressed by Symeon, and as Foundoulēs rightly affirms, all human life is sacred and worthy to be offered as a gift to God. In fact, an examination of the three pre-baptismal rites of the Church (First Day, Eighth Day, Fortieth Day) are replete with references to the praise of God for the gift of new life that has entered the world. All of humanity, represented by Adam and Eve, is redeemable and deserving of salvation. God grants a family and the Church a new life. In turn, the community of faith expresses great joy at this hope and reciprocates back to God her thanksgiving and glorification by offering the infant, God’s ultimate expression of innocence and holiness, back to Him before His throne. It is compelling to perhaps extend the meaning of “Thine own of Thine own gifts we offer to Thee, in all and for all” to this pre-baptismal rite. Every gift (δῶρον) from above deserves a gift in return (ἀντίδωρον) from below, which perpetuates the divine-human fellowship that constitutes our life in the Church.
Foundoulēs likewise adds, and rightfully so, that the issues at hand have absolutely nothing to do with an all-male priesthood, for “all of us are ‘one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28), participants in the same blessings and inheritors of the same promises”. Hence, it appears that the most ancient custom of the Church called for all children, baptized or not, to enter the sanctuary.
In response then to the questions raised by clergy with regard to the rubrical specifics of churching, based upon my own liturgiological research and the data provided in the previous part, my recommendations are the following:
- The children should be brought into the holy altar by the priest. According to the manuscript tradition, ἐκκλησιασμός was not simply their debut entrance among the faithful in the nave but an actual dedication of the children to God within the altar. There is no issue of clean or unclean; even the Catechumens entered the church and were then dismissed before the beginning of the Eucharistic Liturgy, as evidenced by the Apostolic Constitutions.
- Both genders should be brought into the altar. However, the later modified practice of only males being carried before the altar table and females only to the three sides should be tweaked so that neither gender is carried in front of the altar table. That place is best reserved for the celebrant clergy. Consistency for both genders is important and corrects the biased practices that appeared in later Byzantium.
- Following the reading of the two couplet prayers in the churching rite (2 for the mother and 2 for the infant), the priest should carry the infant into the holy altar via the south door of the iconostasis, make three stops or bows with the child on the south, east, and north side of the holy table, and then exit through the north door of the icon screen, reciting the dismissal from the solea or first step of the bema.
Allow me to add that it is pertinent for the prayers to move away from the language of condemnation of the mother (as if she has committed a heinous crime in giving birth to a new child). This sensible effort has already been done by others, and it moves away from the Old Testament stigma of uncleanness in blood flow, which is theologically incompatible with the spirit of the Church’s teaching on the sanctity of life.
In addition, I personally would like to see a prayer added that takes under consideration the role of the father and his reincorporation, if applicable, to the sacramental life of the Church, if he also has been absent with good cause from the assembly in order to assist his wife with the duties of the first forty days. The prayers referring to the mother, insofar as they talk about forgiveness and cleansing, are reminiscent of Old Testament kosher laws, but in fact they seek to reincorporate her into the communal life of the church, since she “intentionally violated” Canon 80 of the Sixth Ecumenical Council (Penthekte — Trullo, 681 AD), which excommunicates the faithful for absenting themselves from the Eucharist for three consecutive Sundays. The references in the first couplet of prayers for the mother speak about this reintegration. I believe eventually that these prayers need to be edited to include the father somehow. This will then definitively disconnect the Church’s practice from the Old Testament misunderstanding.
Finally, although Foundoulēs believes this rite should not be done during the Divine Liturgy (Ἀπαντήσεις εἰς Λειτουργικὰς Ἀπορίας [Answers to Liturgical Questions], volume 1, question 85), I think the appropriate place should be before the communion of the faithful, for the simple reason that the prayers offered here for the mother (and hopefully one day, for the father) lead immediately into the portion of the service that seals their reintegration into the community of faith, that is, their reception of Holy Communion. Foundoulēs’ reservation, I believe, stems from his belief that the solemnity of the Eucharistic Liturgy is compromised when this rite is inserted into the greater liturgical context. However, there is ample historical precedent that at times, the prayer couplet for the mother was said at different times from the prayer couplet for her child, usually in adverse circumstances. Hence, the child’s churching could occur outside of the Eucharist, such as at Vespers and the mother could be blessed and immediately communed in the Divine Liturgy. Of course, this creates complications and is not always practical.
What I have done in the past in the parishes I have served is conduct the churching during the Eucharist, just prior to communion and in the presence of the people. I would then invite the parents, if both are Orthodox and have fasted properly, to receive the Eucharist first before the rest of the congregation, as the orders of the penitents and possessed did when they were led by the bishop from the narthex into the nave to assume their rightful place again among the faithful.
In closing, another suggestion that may sound like a radical innovation (I have not seen evidence for it in the manuscript tradition of the Church) but remains, I believe, in the spirit of the Orthodox Church’s “creative continuity with the revered past”, is to have the parents wear their wedding crowns during the churching, so the worshiping community may rejoice in seeing the fulfillment of their sacred marriage in the new life they have brought into the world—their new son or daughter. This would not only incorporate the father into the rite more visibly, but it would also celebrate the sanctity of the family before God and the worshiping community to which they belong.
But we’ll leave this particular proposition to a future discussion.
Fr. Stelyios Muksuris, a Protopresbyter of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, holds an MLitt and a PhD in liturgical theology and history from Durham University in the UK, and is completing his ThD at the University of Athens in Greece in the same area of specialization. He is Professor and Chair of Liturgical Studies and Languages at the Byzantine Catholic Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA, a prolific author and lecturer, and a frequent consultant on liturgical matters for the Orthodox Church. His monograph is entitled: Economia and Eschatology: Liturgical Mystagogy in the Byzantine Prothesis Rite (Boston: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2013).
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.