This Tuesday is the blessed feast of the Meeting of the Lord in the Temple (Lk. 2:22-39). Forty days after His birth (that’s right, Christmas was 40 days ago) the child Jesus was taken to the Jerusalem Temple and a sacrifice of a lamb or doves was offered as a purification sacrifice for the Most Holy Virgin, the Mother of God. It is this aspect of the feast that makes it one of the feasts dedicated in her honour (the reason why many wear blue at church for this feast). Indeed the Theotokos had no need of purification, since she had given birth to the Source of purity and sanctity without defilement or corruption (as we note every time we sing in her honour) yet she humbly fulfilled the requirements of the Law.
Following this template, women in the Orthodox Church are excused from going to Church for 40 days following the birth of their child (after all, giving birth and caring for a newborn is hard work); and when they return to Church prayers are said over them, that following the Levitical form, pray for purification from the “defilement and corruption” involved in childbirth. Alas, without the proper context and or understanding, these prayers can seem insulting especially in the light of such a beautiful event of bearing a child. Adding insult to injury, the thought that new mothers are restricted from going to Church because they are unclean has led many to disregard this practice, or these prayers. The problem is, that disregarding these elements, affects our understanding of this feast – sort of like throwing the baby out with the bath water (pun intended).
Jesus constantly challenged the religious understanding of “ritual purity” with His mercy and love, regardless of whether it was eating with unclean hands, or touching/being touched by a menstruating woman, lepers, corpse, or eating with sinners. His life, now shared with us (and new mothers) sanctifies our life with that same mercy and love. The “defilement and corruption” that the prayers said over a new mother and child when they come to the Church after 40 days, speak of the defilement and corruption of all of our human nature. That as broken people, mothers (like everyone else) are bound by the physical limitations and frailties of life. Childbirth is not exempt from this. The Church in these prayers recognizes the beauty and hope a new born child offers, yet recognizes that we as sinners can be disfigured by the effects of sin. And as such, prays for forgiveness and restoration. Like the Holy Theotokos, new mothers have given birth to a child without shame or sin, and the Church like the righteous Symeon receive both with thanksgiving, and joy, and prays specifically for the salvation of that new mother! What a privilege, what holiness, what love.
This is a feast that I hold dear to my heart as the father of four wonderful children, and one who has said these prayers over many new mothers. Anytime I receive that newborn child in my arms, I see the Lord’s mercy that flowed 40 days after His nativity, offered specifically for the mother and no one else. A witness that a light has come into this world, held in the arms of his/her mother.