Thursday, November 18, 2010

Entering the Church: Some Thoughts on Orthodox Christian Birth Rites

The initiation of a newborn child into the Church is a journey into Christ’s own life. This process culminates in the child’s baptism and reception of the Eucharist, but it actually begins shortly after birth, when the priest offers prayers for the physical and spiritual healing of both the mother and child.

Eight days later, it is customary for the father or a godparent to bring the newborn to the Church temple, where we offer prayers for naming. While rooted in the naming both of St. John the Forerunner and the Lord Himself (Luke 1:59-63; 2:21) according to the Law of Moses (Lev. 12:1-8), the Orthodox Christian rite of naming is significantly different from that of the Old Testament. For one thing, circumcision is not required, nor does the child necessarily take the name of an ancestor, as seems to have been the custom in ancient Judaism (see Luke 1:61).

When, as Orthodox Christians, we name our children in this way, we are not performing a religious act to justify them before God or make them members of a particular tribe. Rather, we are immersing them in the life of Christ from the beginning, and claiming them for God, who “knows the name and age of each, even from his mother’s womb” (the Anaphora of St. Basil).

Orthodox Christian naming practices vary. A child is sometimes named after the saint commemorated on the day of birth, sometimes in honour of some other saint or biblical figure. Sometimes, however, the child receives the name of a virtue, an ancestor, or some other name entirely (see for example, early saints who were named after pagan philosophers like Plato). There are no “hard and fast” rules (as there might have been in ancient Judaism), except that Christian parents should name their child in a thoughtful and prayerful manner, not whimsically, idly, or merely according to some prevailing fashion. Our names embody our identities and point to our vocation. When we name our children, we should do so as ones who are identifying them as God’s heirs and dedicating them to His service.

Following the eighth day naming, mother and child can enjoy a period of absence from Church community known as “the forty days.” This time, ideally freed from work commitments, is an opportunity for rest, for physically healing, as well as spiritual and emotional bonding. As in the rite of naming, “the forty days” should not be understood as a literal application of a law from the Book of Leviticus; if it were so, the mothers of girls would have to absent themselves for eighty days, as opposed to forty days in the case of boys (see Lev. 12:4-5).

In the Orthodox Christian context, the mothers of both boys and girls participate in the “forty days” in imitation of our Lord’s own Mother and by extension, Jesus Himself. The exact number of days is not legalistically enforced, but offered as an opportunity for a person’s spiritual growth. While forty days is considered an “outer limit” for absence, some women find it spiritually necessary to return sooner, under the pastoral guidance and with the blessing of their pastors.

Following the “forty days,” the mother and child are churched, that is, welcomed back into the community. We ask God’s forgiveness for any sins the mother might have committed during her absence, and the priest then carries the infant in his arms into the Church temple in remembrance of the Lord’s meeting with the Righteous Simeon in the temple. This rite concludes with the recitation of St. Simeon’s Prayer: “Lord, now let Your servant depart in peace…” (Luke 2:22:39)

The end of the mother’s journey of childbearing is her reunion with Christ when she receives the Eucharist at the next liturgy. The end of the child’s journey of being “born in the flesh” is his or her spiritual rebirth in baptism. This rebirth, of course, begins another a journey that has no end, in which a person grows into the fullness of Christ, Eucharist by Eucharist, moment by moment, day by day, and then onwards from glory to glory in the age to come.

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