Tuesday, December 11, 2012

On ritual impurity

The below is a discussion of the notion of ritual impurity in the Church from First Things. You might also enjoy this article from Nun Vassa Larin. It was later responded to by Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov here. This is certainly a topic of much discussion in recent years and worth a read.


(First Things) - “O Master, Lord Almighty . . . Do Thou Thyself heal also this handmaid, [Name,] who today has given birth and raise her from the bed on which she lies . . . purify her from uncleanness . . . cleanse her from bodily uncleanness and the various afflictions of her womb.”

“Purify her . . . from every sin and from every defilement . . . and let her to be counted worthy to partake, uncondemned, of Thy Holy Mysteries . . . Wash away her bodily and spiritual uncleanness.”

These words come from the Orthodox Christian childbearing rites contained in the liturgical handbook, the Great Book of Needs. The first few lines are from “Prayers on the First Day after a Woman has Given Birth to a Child,” or the “First Day” prayers, which are prayed by a priest at a new mother’s bedside soon after birth. The last few lines are from “Prayers for a Woman on the Fortieth Day of Childbirth,” or the “Churching” prayers, which are said when a woman first returns to church with her newborn.

The suggestions about the mother—defiled, unclean, unworthy—jar modern ears. They chafe against the developed-world understanding of childbirth as a healthy and natural biological process that has nothing to do with purity. The situation of these rites among the Orthodox in the United States is varied: Often they are abandoned entirely, some priests change them on the fly, sometimes these rites are celebrated in the tongue of the old country so the exclusively English-speaking mother simply does not have to hear them. Occasionally these rites are being explained, but in wildly inconsistent ways.

Rites can and should make demands on the faithful, so those of us who are piqued by this language must determine if the reason for our reaction is our preference for comfort and ease over hermeneutical effort. We must ask, then, is this concept of impurity after childbirth theologically sound?

It is often assumed that these rites are directly linked to the rites after childbirth found in Leviticus that ban a woman from the temple for a certain number of days and dictate the necessary offerings required for cleansing. Ritual impurity in the ancient world did not constitute a sinful state, but rather a special and contagious ritual state from which one must recover by performing dictated actions. Childbirth was understood as impure not because of the sinfulness of childbearing, but because all experiences which brought one into contact with God’s creative powers, especially female blood—both postpartum and menstrual—were taboo. This understanding was part of the strict division in the ancient world, among the Jews and the pagans, between the sacred and the profane, and this sort of impurity demanded ritual remediation not only to cleanse the impurity from the individual, but also to restore order and maintain God’s favor for the community at large.

Mary, the Mother of God herself, underwent the Mosaic rite or purification, as we hear early in the Gospel of Luke. Yet there is no textual link between the Jewish and Christian purification rites. The oldest extant copies of the Orthodox purification rite, or “Churching,” are from the eighth century, and they do not contain any prayers for the mother whatsoever, but are instead focused entirely on the child. It is only later, in the twelfth century, that the prayers for the mother, which include the impurity theme, were incorporated. The First Day rite was an even later addition, first appearing in the fourteenth century.

The introduction of the Levitical concept of impurity to Orthodox childbearing rites was probably spurred by pagan superstitions about childbirth that were in the air in the late Byzantine period. This likely was not a simple resurrection of the Levitical concept, but instead a new and direct association formed between childbirth and sin.
Complete article here.

10 comments:

  1. I take these prayers as a prayer for the health of the mother and that the placenta will come out without harming her. We should remember that in the past child birth was very dangerous and that many women died, probably from unsanitary conditions especially since most births were at home and not in the sanitary environment of a hospital. Therefore, we have to put these prayers in their historical context. Now everything is sanitary. I remember that I had to put on a surgical gown when I was with my wife during the birth of two children.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I forgot to add that a woman giving birth is in contact with the holy process of creating life. That makes a sinful human ritually unclean. In any case we can explain the prayers as thanksgiving that the woman has survived the ordeal of child birth.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I am really surpirsed that the article did not even bother to mention the results of the Pan-Orthodox Consultations on Women about 20 years ago on this topic.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Steve, sounds like that would be very pertinent. Where would one look for that information?

      Delete
  4. Fr. John, this really doesn't negate your point, but you do realize, don't you, that hospitals in some important ways are among the most dangerous places on earth for someone with a vulnerable immature immune system to be (and for many others also) because of the virulent strains of bacteria that exist there (despite sanitation protocols) because of the many ill and infected people treated there. The safest place for a woman to give birth in the developed world today (assuming a normal healthy pregnancy, etc.) is in her own home where she has well-established immunity to all the organisms there and passes them on to her newborn. I learned this from the Christian doctors of a local homebirth practice I used when I was having my children. I also learned from the head of that medical practice that the fourth leading cause of death in this country is conventional medical treatment--not just medical error, but treatment. Medical error is the third leading cause of death in this country.

    Thanks for sharing your insights as to the place of these rites in the Church.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I bore four children and never, ever had any feminist-inspired revulsion toward the prayers. Sinful situation? No. After four C-sections, however, I'll testify that one sure does feel quite unclean and defiled! As for the forty days, I always thought that the Church was brilliantly ahead of its time in recognizing that a mother and baby need those weeks to recover from birth trauma and to grow close in love to each other.

    Also, the writer "ofgrace" is correct in what she says.

    ReplyDelete
  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Sorry...doing a repost. In a way I'm glad I wasn't Orthodox when I gave birth to my daughter. I think I would've raised my hackles at the idea of "uncleanness" in childbirth. No matter how pretty a spin some give it,it still comes down to the sexist notion that some think women and sex are dirty...and then we wonder why non-believes make fun of us Christians? I have to admit this is one of the more embarrassing aspects for me because it's hard to explain to others why I belong to a church that still has such antiquated notions on women. Maybe I shouldn't say that, but that's how I feel sometimes when I see things that are imposed on the woman but not on the man.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I can't say that I agree with you. My wife takes her 40 days and is overjoyed to have services welcoming her back to the church. A churching is also done for our children (boy or girl) as a welcome to the church. I'm reading the prayers for these services and not finding anything antiquated or embarrassing in them. I also don't see much in them or in the larger tradition of the Church that says women or sex are dirty.

      Delete
    2. Every woman is different, I suppose. I'm just speaking for how I personally would've felt in my 20s. I was a rather staunch feminist in those days. Mind, there are somethings in feminism I question as well. I'm trying to understand but it's difficult for me when I see men getting what are considered privileges but women seeming less than. Not sure if this makes sense but it's like men can imitate Christ but if a woman can't really imitate the Theotokos, she's set apart from the rest of us. Sometimes that makes me feel sad, but oh well...lord, help my unbelief in this case, eh?

      Delete