Forty-eight years ago, within weeks of my ordination to the priesthood, I offered a Sunday Mass in my home parish of St. Charles Borromeo in Woonsocket. After Mass, a young mother presented herself to me and asked to be “churched.” This was the only request for churching in my half-century of priestly ministry.
Churching was never a precept, but rather, a pious and praiseworthy custom that became popular in the late Middle Ages and remained so until the middle of the last century. St. Charles Borromeo himself at the First Council of Milan taught that a mother should present herself in the Church as soon as she was able to leave her house in order to give thanks to God for a happy delivery and to obtain the grace necessary to bring up her child in a Christian manner.
Although churching was sometimes linked to the Jewish ritual of purification after childbirth, the Christian ceremony never had any connotation of uncleanness or impurity. Rather, as the name churching implies, the Christian rite was a ceremony of welcoming the new mother back into the church community after her weeks of confinement and post-delivery recuperation. Senior readers of this column will recall that mothers did not attend baptisms in the “old days,” suggesting an older tradition of baptizing babies within a day or two of birth when mothers were still convalescing. Since a new mother was out of circulation, so to speak, and incapable of attending Sunday Mass (which our ancestors took as a serious obligation), the woman’s return to active parish life was truly a cause for jubilation, re-affirming her commitment to the Church community and welcoming her back to the Eucharistic celebration. Now that baptisms are celebrated a couple of months after a child’s birth, new mothers are invariably present and a special blessing for the new mother is included at the end of the baptismal rite itself. Fathers, neglected in the older baptismal rite, now also receive a particular paternal blessing at the conclusion of the ceremony.
The new maternal prayer of blessing is most joyful, hopeful, thankful and optimistic: God the Father, through his Son, the Virgin Mary’s child, has brought joy to all Christian mothers, as they see the hope of eternal life shine on their children. May he bless the mother of this child. She now thanks God for the gift of her child. May she be one with him (her) in thanking him for ever in heaven.
The paternal prayer of blessing is joyous but somewhat challenging: God is the giver of all life, human and divine. May he bless the father of this child. He and his wife will be the first teachers of their child in the ways of faith. May they be also the best of teachers, bearing witness to the faith by what they say and do. These two prayers are followed by a general prayer of blessing for the godparents and the gathered relatives and friends of the new baby thus happily reminding all that the infant’s growth in the faith is a responsibility for the entire assembly.
The Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord, as the observance occurring annually on February 2 is now properly called, has only had this title officially since the Missal of Pope Paul VI was issued in the 1960s. Before that, in the Roman Catholic Church, the feast occurring forty days after Christmas was named for the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a reference more to Jewish tradition than to Christian revelation. The feast was also known as Candlemas Day, since candles to be used in church and at home during the year were blessed on this day.
The connection with candles capitalized on Simeon’s Gospel reference to Jesus being a “light of revelation to the Gentiles,” as well as the Christianizing of a pagan practice of offering beeswax candles to the gods on this day. The feast of the Presentation also concludes the Advent, Christmas, Epiphany liturgical cycle since from now on feasts days like Ash Wednesday, Ascension and Pentecost will be determined by reference to Easter rather than to Christmas.
The celebration of Christ’s Presentation and Groundhog Day on February 2 is not accidental. Many European cultures saw the beginning of February as the first hint of the end of winter. Decorations that cheered the interior of houses during the darkness of winter were removed. Animals were thought to stir from hibernation on this date. It was a day that sparked hope and promise!