A Historical and Pastoral Response to the Forty-Day Churching of Infants (Part One)

by Rev. Dr. Stelyios Muksuris

Presentation of Jesus in the Temple

The pre-baptismal rite of the forty-day churching of infants has raised manifold questions with regard to the manner of its execution by clergy. Supplementing such quandaries are issues regarding the gender of infants, the need to reassess and modify the language of certain prayers, and to include the father into the rite in such a manner that the focus becomes not simply the “forgiveness” and reincorporation into communion of the mother but the sanctification and celebration of the whole family in the fulfillment of the will of God.

In this segment, I shall base my responses on the evidence found within the manuscript tradition of the Church, likewise analyzing the historical shift into the variegated practices we witness today. In the final installment, I shall proceed to make my own suggestions for a uniform practice that is theologically sensible and pastorally sensitive.

The Manuscript Tradition

Within the manuscript tradition of the Byzantine Church, sources following Barberini Codex 336 from the eight century and onward into the Middle and Late Byzantine periods report an assortment of practices with regard to the churching of infants. For example, the sources all speak of infants being brought into the holy altar. However, some references indicate entrance only for baptized children without any regard for gender (ἄνευ διακρίσεως φύλου); others speak of only males being brought in, regardless of having been baptized or not; still others speak of all infants, male and female, being carried into the Holy of Holies, baptized as well as unbaptized. The prevailing practice today, although perhaps not necessarily the “correct” one, is to have only unbaptized or baptized males enter the altar. This is the case for two reasons: (1) when the life of the child was endangered, it was not uncommon for baptism of infants to occur before forty days, after which the churching was conducted; and (2) entrance into the altar became reserved for males, as only they had the opportunity to advance into the major orders of the priesthood. This second reason reflects a later desire for the Church, presumably when the order of the female diaconate had fizzled out in several jurisdictional zones, to reaffirm the male priesthood and the altar as their domain.

The codices that specify for both genders to be brought into the altar make the peculiar distinction that males are brought in through the south door and presented at all four sides of the altar table (including the front), while females are likewise brought in through the same south door but are presented only on the three sides and never in front of the holy table. This later rubric, while expressing the Church’s belief that all human life is sacred and thus worthy to be offered as a gift to God, still maintains a “preference” for males and camouflages this predilection in the rationale of an all-male priesthood.

Under no circumstances, however, are clergy to bring the infants through the Holy Doors of the sanctuary. This prohibition is best explained especially from monastic liturgy, in which the Holy Doors are typically kept closed and opened only during key and practically necessary moments (entrances, censing, the communion of the faithful, etc.). The late liturgiologist, Professor Iōannēs Foundoulēs of the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki,[1] presents iconographical evidence, arguing that iconographers are known for being extremely meticulous and accurate in their depictions of New Testament events as reflective of Old Testament customs, architecture, etc. He points to the fact that in the icon of the Meeting of the Lord, the holy gates of the Jewish temple remained shut during the 40-day rite performed by St. Symeon the God-Receiver, but they were opened in the icon of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple.

However, this argument, in my opinion, loses credibility when one considers that female deacons were ordained by the bishop in the altar and before the holy table, from where they also communed at every Divine Liturgy (although evidence suggests—according to my own research, as well as Professors Evangelos Theodorou and Kyriaki FitzGerald—that their service to the Church was more pastoral than liturgical). In addition, it was well known historically that according to such witnesses as Canon 19 of Hippolytus of Rome (late 2nd-3rd century), as well as the 2nd canon of Dionysios of Alexandria and the Byzantine canonist Theodore Balsamon, women (presumably deaconesses) communed within the altar. This naturally implies that ordination to one of the major orders privileges a cleric, regardless of gender, to enter the Holy of Holies on the basis of his or her sacramental responsibilities and office in the Church. Put simply, if the Church through the bishop appoints them to a ministry or role associated with the altar, they have every right and expectation to serve as the Church sees fit.

When we come to Codex Sinaiticus 968 from the 15th century, we see that it is the only manuscript known to us (there may be others that have as yet not been discovered) which makes a distinction between genders. That is, males are brought into the altar but females are not. Hence, from the Ottoman Occupation until today, this has remained the prevailing practice. However, around the same time or a little later, Codices Athens 662, 664, and 667, basing their rationale on the opinion of the last great liturgical mystagogue St. Symeon of Thessalonike (+1429), speak of an intermediary custom, namely, bringing all children, male and female into the altar, baptized or not (Symeon though differed from the codices in that he ordered only for baptized children to be brought into the altar), but assuring that only males come before the holy table and the three sides while females are brought to the three sides only and never before the table (see above).

Read Part Two: Pastoral Recommendations

[1] The late Professor of Liturgy at the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki Iōannēs Foundoulēs, in his 5-volume series Ἀπαντήσεις εὶς Λειτουργικὰς Ἀπορίας [Answers to Liturgical Questions], addresses at length not only the form but also the theological significance of this pre-baptismal rite of the churching of infants, not to mention its sequence with regard to baptism and other related topics. He does so in several responses: from volume 3, questions 304-305, 363, 381-385 (pp. 13-14, 178-179, 225-242, respectively) and from volume 5, question 516 (pp. 60-62). Foundoulēs, a traditionalist in theory and always a proponent of maintaining continuity with the revered past, is not one for advocating innovations without a sound foundational origin rooted in Tradition, but he also maintains the practical application of practices when ancient liturgical customs appear incoherent, abusive, or serve as deterrents away from a responsible and sensible manner of worship. The five-volume series is currently in the process of being translated in its entirety into English by an official committee of clergy and scholars, of whom the author is a member.

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.