Among other legacies, Judaism bequeathed to Christianity the sacred number forty. In the Old Testament we read that after Noah built the ark, the heavens opened, raining hard forty days and forty nights (Genesis 7:12). Moses remained on Sinai for forty days and nights, receiving from God the Ten Commandments (Exodus 34:28). To reach the Mountain of God, Elijah walked forty days and nights (1 Kings 19:8). The same sacred number determined the date for women's purification after the birth of a male child (Leviticus 12:1-5). Considered twice as "unclean" as the mothers of males, mothers of females were "purified" eighty days after childbirth!
In the New Testament the number forty retains the same religious and ritual significance. At the beginning of His ministry, Christ fasted and prayed in the wilderness for forty days and nights (Matthew 4:1ff, Mark 1: 12ff, Luke 4:1-13). Risen from the dead, Christ appeared to the disciples over a period of forty days (Acts 1:13). And forty days after Jesus' birth, Mary was "purified" and Jesus presented in the temple, according to Mosaic law (Luke 2:22-38).
All Orthodox Christians are familiar with this sacred number. We celebrate the Feasts of the Presentation and the Ascension forty days after Christmas and Easter respectively. Our dead are first memorialized at the saranta [memorial service]. The Easter fast, the sarakoste, lasts forty days. And Orthodox women are "purified" and their infants blessed forty days after birth. Until that time new mothers are considered "unclean" and are excluded from participation in the liturgical life of the Church.
Biblical sanction for this Orthodox ritual and practice lies in Leviticus 12:1-5. Written several millennia ago and reflecting primitive taboos based on ignorance, this passage declares women unclean after childbirth and mandates their exclusion from the sanctuary until they are cleansed.
In view of scientific knowledge of the birth-giving process, we cannot today accept the basic assumption of Leviticus and our Orthodox service, namely, that childbirth renders women physically unclean, and, therefore, ritually impure. Nevertheless, in June 1986 a prominent Greek Orthodox theologian, in defense of this ritual, wrote concerning women after childbirth these shocking words: "Uncleanliness is a description of her biological condition." By the fortieth day, he continued, she has "normalized" and can return to "normal social and Church life." Orthodox women are right in asking what is there that is not "normal" in a woman's giving birth to another image of God. When a woman brings into the world a new life, is she not continuing God's work of creation?
This primitive theory of women's uncleanness clearly denigrates all Orthodox women. It especially demeans Orthodox mothers, causing such pain and alienation that the Church can ill afford to ignore it any longer.
Furthermore, sexist discrimination against Orthodox women begins when we are only forty days old. A month ago I witnessed the churching of two infants. The priest carried the first one into the altar area and around the altar table once. The second infant was carried only up to the Holy Gate. These two tiny human beings were equally pure, innocent, sinless and created in the Divine image. Why then, were they treated differently? The one was admitted to the sacred space of the altar and the other was not. This discrimination, it cannot be denied or explained away, is based solely on sex. At forty days the male infant gains access to the altar, while at forty days the female infant is denied access forever after. At forty days the female is marked by tradition spelled with a capital 'T' as somehow less holy than the male.
At her churching the female is, of course, unaware of the sexist discrimination against her. However, she experiences it soon enough, the experience lasting a lifetime. Little girls are forbidden the joy of service at the altar available to little boys. Because of gender, women are denied the privilege of serving God and humankind in the priestly ministry. All our lives we experience second-class status in our Church, the inequality imposed upon us by man-made patriarchal prejudices, traditions, and practices. When we become mothers we are reminded of our uncleanness and the cycle of discrimination begun forty days after birth is completed.
Surely the time has come to end this cycle. Reform of the service of "purification" and "churching" is a good way to begin.
Editors' note: This article first appeared in 1986. We are gratified to note that the tradition of which it speaks is being examined by the Church at large. In many places, women are not prohibited from entering the sanctuary or receiving the Eucharist after childbirth. In addition, some priests church males and females (in most cases, infant boys and girls) in a like manner. However, in all too many other places, the practices and their associated prayers remain.
We ought to take a good look at this service and ask what is the purpose and meaning of it. If it is the thanksgiving of the woman for the birth of her child which she now brings to offer to God - that is quite straightforward. But there are a lot of things in the prayer for the 40th day that are not just thanksgiving and that speak of the need for purification. Why does the woman need to be purified more than the man after the birth of a child? That is a question I would like to see our theologians answer.
- Bishop Kallistos Ware