Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy

by

Eva Catafygiotu Topping


At Forty Days

Among other legacies, Judaism bequeathed to Christianity the sacred number "forty." In the O1d Testament we read that after Noah built the ark, the heavens opened,raining hard 40 days and 40 nights (Genesis 7:12). Moses remained on Sinai for 40 days and nights, receiving from God the Ten Commandments (Exodus 34:28). To reach the Mountain of God, Elijah walked 40 days and nights (I 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" 80 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 for40 days and nights (Matthew 4:1f, Mark 1:12f, Luke 4:1-13). Risen from the dead, Christ appeared to the disciples over a period of 40 days (Acts l:l3). And 40 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 Hypapante and the Ascension 40 days after Christmas and Easter respectively. Our dead are first memorialized at the saranta. The Easter fast, the sarakoste, lasts 40 days. And Orthodox women are "purified" and their infants blessed 40 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, as short a time ago as in June 1986 a prominent Greek Orthodox theologian, in defense of this ritual, wrote concerning woman 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 "uncleanliness" 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 40 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 40 days the male infant gains access to the altar, while at 40 days the female infant is denied access forever after. At 40 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 "uncleanliness" and the cycle of discrimination begun at 40 days after birth is completed.

Surely today the time has come to end this cycle. Reform of the service of "purification" and "churching" is a good way to begin.

Presentation of Christ

Presentation of Christ at the Temple