Churching is a service of thanksgiving and blessing of the mother and her child when they return to the church after childbirth. It is reminiscent of the Old Testament ceremony of purification (Lev. 12: 2-8) and the presentation of Jesus at the Temple (Luke 2: 22-29). There are separate services of churching for the mother and for the child.
In some traditions, it is customary to baptize the child on the eighth day, following the example of the Old Testament rite of bris or circumcision of boys with the naming of the child taking place in the temple. When this occurs, the mother does not attend and the child is presented by its godparents. The more common custom, however, is for the naming to take place on the eighth day and for the baptism to occur after the churching on the fortieth.
Churching of the mother
The mother traditionally comes to church on the fortieth day after childbirth for special blessings. After the birth of her child a mother remains at home for forty days to recuperate and to care for her child. However, if the child has not survived, the woman still remains at home to heal physically and emotionally. During the time of her confinement, the mother does not normally receive Holy Communion, unless she is in danger of death. As the service is practiced in some traditions, churching involves both the blessing of the mother and the presentation of the child to God.
In contemporary practice, it is rarely medically necessary and sometimes not even possible for the mother to remain confined in the home for forty days. Pastors must determine whether it is more important pastorally that the churching be the first thing the woman does upon leaving the home or that the churching happen on the symbolic fortieth day. Not all pastors make the same determination.
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 once again. The child, that has already been cleansed and washed, is brought by the mother accompanied by the intended godparents who will stand at the child's baptism. They all stand together in the narthex of the church before the doors of the nave 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.
Churching of the Child
In some traditions, the churching is always performed before the baptism, which is the historical norm in the manuscript tradition. In other traditions, however, if the infant has already been baptized, the priest performs the churching of the child. If not, he does the churching immediately after the child's baptism. There are various forms of this service among different Orthodox traditions. The following mentions some of the elements that are more commonly seen.
Taking up the child, the priest lifts it up, making the Sign of the Cross with the child before the doors of the temple, saying: "The servant of God (Name) is churched, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."
The priest then carries the child 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 says, "The servant of God (Name) is churched, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. In the midst of the congregation I will sing praises unto Thee."
He then walks up to the iconostasis, and stopping in front of the Holy Doors, he says, "The servant of God (Name) is churched, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."
In some traditions, the child (whether boy or girl) is taken through the south deacon's door into the sanctuary around the holy table, stopping at each side, completing the circuit at the front of the altar if it is a boy, but ending at the north side if it is a girl. The child is then brought out and returned to his mother. This is the historical norm in the manuscript tradition.
In other traditions, if the child is a girl, the priest places her on the solea in front of the icon of the Theotokos. If the child is a boy, he carries him through the south deacon's door into the sanctuary and around the back of the Holy Table exiting the altar through the north deacon's door and again places the baby boy onto the solea.
He then says the Song of Simeon and says a special apolysis (dismissal), after which he blesses the child with the Sign of the Cross on its forehead, mouth and heart, and returns it to its mother.
Notes on Variations
As noted above, there is variation on whether unbaptized children are churched as well as on whether both boys and girls are brought into the sanctuary behind the iconostasis. While scholarship on this point is scarce in English, it is the subject of Greek scholarship by the eminent liturgical scholar Ioannes Fountoules, who taught liturgics at the University of Thessaloniki. Following are notes from the Services of Initiation published by the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America (p. 139):
- St Symeon of Thessaloniki does not make any distinction regarding the sex of the baby—only whether it be baptized or not—as a condition of bringing it into the holy Altar. The saint wrote, “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).
- But it seems that the tradition does not admit any criteria—either sex or baptismal status—as conditions for bringing the infant into the Altar. While admitting that the criterion of baptism possesses a consistent and sound logic to it, Ioannes Fountoules has pointed out that none of the manuscripts which carry the churching service make any mention of any criteria for bringing a churched infant into the holy Altar. In fact, the whole churching service, as it has come down to us, presumes that the child is in fact not baptized, and the manuscripts which have this service mention the bearing the infant into the Altar, most times irrespective of sex (see Apantiseis A' #167 and D' #381, especially pp. 233-236). In short, the service is about the dedication of infants to God. The fact that the infants are brought by Christian parents should be considered as the most important qualification and that we not "split hairs over accuracy,” as Fountoules judged.
This being the case, later changes in some traditions suggest an interpretation of the rite as pertaining in some way to ordination, such that it is considered inappropriate to bring either or both the unbaptized and/or female children into the sanctuary. The text of the rite does not mention ordination, however.