By Rebecca Taylor
As I neared my due date, my midwife told me I’d developed the look.
I think this will be your last appointment.
I’d been having contractions off and on for days, none of them actually getting me closer to meeting my son. I was riddled with heartburn. Getting dressed felt like an Olympic sport. I couldn’t stand up or roll over without grunting. But still, no progress. I told her she was crazy. I don’t think this baby will ever come.
Nope, you have the look. This will be your last appointment.
When you read “midwife” with this seemingly mystical gift to predict birth, you’re probably picturing a woman with long braided hair, a skirt made of wheat, incense in the air, chanting birth mantras. In reality, my midwife was an Orange County blonde with perfectly French manicured nails and a diamond ring the size of my belly. (Read: not small.)
But she knew. As each one of her clients neared birth, she swore they came in with a specific look. Barely able to describe it, she could see the transformation in their face. The birth day was approaching.
She reminded me, Rebecca, the day your baby is born is not just his birthday. It’s also yours. It’s the day you’re born a mother.
Two days later, our first son joined our family, and I was born as a mother. The shift from woman to mother can’t be described with words.
Following my birth, I became a birth doula: a woman who supports laboring women. As each baby was born, everyone in the room was captivated by the baby, but I was equally captivated by the woman, newly born as a mother. I’ve also seen this transformation as friends have welcomed babies through adoption. When your heart knits to a baby, the transformation happens.
Throughout history, cultures have celebrated the birth of both child and mother in unique ways. In many cultures, women were considered impure after birth. Birth fluids and subsequent bleeding rendered a woman ceremonially unclean. Some cultures have certain foods women eat during their recovery from childbirth, believed to heal them and purify their womb. Others partake in “postpartum confinement” ranging from a few weeks to 60 days or more. In many cultures, there is a communal aspect; other mothers, aunts, and grandmothers surround the mother and baby and take care of all the household tasks.
Even in our modern American culture, women take a certain amount of time off. Some feel the pressure to bounce back immediately. Others are able to take an extended period of recovery and “maternity leave.”
But every mother has a day when she re-enters society. They wash their hair, put on copious amounts of under-eye concealer (but they don’t have the energy for any other makeup), and they venture out into public. It may be a doctor’s office, the grocery store, a park, or church, but all new moms have the same prayer: I hope I brought enough diapers.
On February 2, the Church celebrates the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. Following the Jewish ceremonial practices, Mary would have re-entered the Temple for public worship. This would have completed her purification rituals, and it was also the time for the newborn child to be consecrated to the Lord. It was an act of both thanksgiving and blessing.
In the 11th century, a liturgical rite was developed for women re-entering the Church following the birth of a baby.
It was called a Churching.
Given the cultural expectations of the time, this practice was centered on purification and thanksgiving for the birth. Many liturgical churches (Orthodox, Catholic, and Anglican) celebrated this momentous time in a woman’s life with a liturgical rite, as they did with all other significant moments: baptism, marriage, ordination, death, etc.
All liturgical rites have a common theme: union.
In Baptism, the newly baptized enters union with the body of believers. In Confirmation, the baptized Christian enters union with the Church. In marriage, the couple enters a covenantal union. In death, we enter into eternal union with the Father. In the Eucharist, which is the proper context for all sacramental rites, we enter into (comm)union with the Son by the Holy Spirit.
As culture became enlightened that birth wasn’t a “dirty business” which filled the mother with impurity, making her unable to partake of the sacraments, the Church began to reassess the Churching liturgy. Catholics added a blessing for the mother to the Baptism liturgy, and American Anglicans slowly transformed the liturgy altogether to become A Thanksgiving for the Birth or Adoption of a Child.
The thanksgiving is good, but incomplete. Luke outlines Jesus’ presentation of Jesus in the Temple. After the purification and sacrifice offering, the prophet Simeon gave thanks to God and then blessed the family.
Historically, the Churching of women was the only liturgy involving women exclusively. It was a time of cultural feasting and celebration; a time for women in particular to rejoice in their unique ability to worship God with the whole of their bodies through pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding. Women came together (men were invited but often didn’t come) for a new mother’s Churching.
If we look at Luke again, we see that Simeon wasn’t the only one to bless the family; a prophet named Anna also participated in this significant moment in the life of this family.
Our current culture calls us to once again assess our liturgical practices. My husband, a liturgical theologian, has been long-fascinated with the Churching liturgy, and the two of us have been on a personal mission to adapt it to fit our current understanding of birth. It is time to bring back Churching, removing the misogynistic undertones and outdated need for purification and ritual uncleanliness, and celebrating the uniquely feminine gift of entering into the art of creation and sustaining with the Creator and Sustainer. Additionally, since this is a liturgy for women, women should have a role.
(Before we move on, it is very important to note that creating life through pregnancy, and sustaining a life through breastfeeding, do not make a woman a woman. Women are uniquely reflective of God even if they never bear children or breastfeed. Additionally, women are not mothers-lite if they become mothers through adoption or surrogacy. All mothers are to be celebrated and blessed.)
Three weeks ago, our Deacon, Stefanie, gave birth to her second daughter. With the permission of our Rector and Associate Rector, Porter and I have written a liturgy called The Churching of a Woman and Her Family. In it, the Lord is thanked for sustaining the mother through childbirth, the mother is blessed in her new role, the child is named, the child is blessed, and then there is a blessing of the new union between the family, including the father and any siblings present.
This liturgy is compiled from various sources (available upon request) and original material.
On Sunday, Church of the Apostles celebrated its first Churching. We gathered together and gave thanks for the return of Stefanie into our doors after the safe delivery of our newest member. Our Associate rector, a mother herself, then blessed Stefanie using these words:
Almighty God, thank you for the gift you have bestowed upon N. to join you in the sacred act of creating and sustaining life. You have turned into joy the pains of the faithful in childbirth; look mercifully upon your servant, N., coming in gladness to your Church to offer her thanks. Grant, we ask you, most merciful Father, that she, with your help, may faithfully live according to your will in this life, and may also partake in the everlasting glory of the life to come; and may the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be upon you, and remain with you always. Amen.
Stefanie and her husband then publicly named their new daughter, and both the baby and the family were blessed. In a few weeks, we will celebrate with them the Sacrament of Baptism.
We hope you enjoy these pictures from Church of the Apostles’ first Churching. You can find the liturgy here: Churching Liturgy.2019.