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Ritual Uncleanliness after Childbirth?

The old custom of 'churching' a woman after childbirth is still leaving relics of worry and unease. These are questions which we still encounter:

Do women need to be cleansed after childbirth?
Is a pregnant woman ritually unclean?
Does a woman need to cleanse away the sin of her childbirth?
Why are women unclean after giving birth to a child?
Why did Mary need to be purified in the Temple?
Why does a young mother stay unclean for 40 days after childbirth? May she go to church during that period? May she take communion while she is still impure?

It is sad that such misgivings still exist.

Giving birth to a child is one of the most beautiful and sacred things a woman can do. In a way she cooperates directly with the creative act by which a new human being sees the light of day. There is no question of her becoming unclean by this, of her needing to be cleansed and to be barred from taking full part in Church services. On the contrary, a young mother deserves all the joy of joining in Christ's eucharist of thanksgiving.

Let us see where the misgivings come from.

 

Why did people think a young mother needed to be purified after giving birth to a child?

  1. Pagan origins
    According to Greek and Roman ideas, a man had more 'spirit' than a woman. A woman was more material, like the earth, which they saw confirmed at childbirth. For then the mother discharges the tissue of the placenta amd blood. So a woman was unclean after giving birth to a child, even more so if the child happened to be a daughter. For, it was thought, a child becomes female through a mishap at conception.
    These ideas are fully explained here in five diagrams.


  2. Jewish laws of purification
    In Leviticus 12/1-5 we read that mothers could be purified 40 days after the birth of a son, 80 days after the birth of a daughter.
    The LORD said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites: ‘A woman who becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son will be ceremonially unclean for seven days, just as she is unclean during her monthly period. On the eighth day the boy is to be circumcised. Then the woman must wait thirty-three days to be purified from her bleeding. She must not touch anything sacred or go to the sanctuary until the days of her purification are over. If she gives birth to a daughter, for two weeks the woman will be unclean, as during her period. Then she must wait sixty-six days to be purified from her bleeding.
    At Jesus' birth, Joseph and Mary followed this custom according to Luke 2/22:
    When the time came for them to be purified as laid down by the Law of Moses, they took him (Jesus) up to Jerusalem to present him to theLord.

  3. Christian Tradition
    * Although the law of Moses was abrogated for Christians at the First Ecumenical Council in Jerusalem (Acts 15,5-11)
    * and although the physical discharges during pregnancy and childbirth do not make a mother unclean (see here)
    the custom of "churching" a woman after childbirth arose from about the fifth century in both the East and the West.

    Unfortunately, the old stain of being ritually unclean for 40 days was now also attached to Christian women. They were not allowed to receive communion before they were 'purified', not even to enter the church where their child was being baptised. In the Catholic West the custom has now generally been abandoned. Where it is still used, the ceremony of "churching" has been changed into a ritual of thanksgiving and of blessing the young mother.

Conclusion

Catholics should realise that childbirth does not make a mother ritually unclean. She does not need to be 'purified'. She may receive holy communion at any time, is allowed to pray in Church and attend the Eucharist. She should not be kept away from the baptism of her child. Read the story of how my own mother refused to be churched after I had been born.

Where the ceremony of "churching" is still followed for pastoral reasons, it should be clearly explained as an opportunity to bless the young mother and to give thanks for the succesful delivery and the gift of a child. Meanwhile the mother should NOT be barred from the Church or the sacraments. She is not unclean.

John Wijngaards

 

 


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