Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Purification of the Virgin

In between my first and second years of seminary, I spent most of a summer working in the north of England in an urban parish, where I stayed in the parish vicarage with Fr. David and his family. Although I did learn a great deal about the ins and outs of ministry—the rhythm of the Daily Office and “daily mass,” the upkeep of a building, the administration of a parish, the balance of priestly and familial life—I learned even more about the sacramental relationship between people and their church. Over and over, people who hadn’t darkened the door of the church in decades would knock on the vicarage door (right next to the church) to ask in a superstitious way that their babies be “christened.” “Oh, I don’t want the Devil getting my baby!” they would say in a thick northern accent.

Another curious phenomenon in that community was the importance of a service which has remnants that still exist in our prayer book but that I have never taken part in: the churching of women. Women—usually mothers or mothers-in-law—would come to the vicarage and ask about having their daughters or daughters-in-law “churched.” In that part of England, tradition and culture and moral expectations all declared that new mothers would be “churched” before they could receive visitors other than their close family. Bizarre? Maybe.

In the 1979 BCP, it’s called “Thanksgiving for the Birth or Adoption of a Child,” but, in every earlier prayer book I can find, it focuses on the mother in a purification-sort-of way. In the 1928 BCP it was “The Thanksgiving of Women after Childbirth.” In the 1892 and earlier BsCP it was “The Thanksgiving of Women after Child-birth; commonly called, The Churching of Women.” What does it mean for a woman to be “churched?” Well, ask Mary and Joseph, who do just that in Sunday’s gospel lesson.

As the passage begins, “When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses…” In this case, the “law of Moses” is Leviticus 12. It’s a short little chapter from the Torah, and it focuses on the uncleanness of a mother after childbirth. For a male child, the woman is totally unclean for 7 days and then ritually unclean for another 33—40 days in all. That’s why the “Purification of the Virgin…” Oh, wait, we’ve changed the name of this feast to the “Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple.” Anyway, whatever you call it, that’s why it happens on February 2, which is 40 days from December 25. For a female child, of course, the curse of Eve is more pronounced, and the total uncleanness lasts for 14 days and then ritually uncleanness for another 66, which makes 80 days in all. It was time, you see, for Mary to come and be ritually purified in the temple.

But that’s not what Luke says.

Seth Olson pointed out in staff meeting the other day that Luke lumps Joseph in with Mary: their purification. Why is that? Is he trying to send a message here? Maybe it’s a comment on Mary’s perpetual virginity—the virgin birth not just the virgin conception—but I doubt it. That wasn’t an “important” doctrine (and still only important only to some) until much later. Maybe Luke is making an egalitarian declaration about the shared roles of parents, which is later underscored by the inclusion of Anna the prophetess as an important presence alongside Simeon. Still, though, that’s a bit of a reach, but it allows preachers to ask the question of egalitarian, genderless society. But I’m not sure how far that will preach. My heart (no surprise) is drawn to the considerable tension between the expectations of the old dispensation and the revelation that is made through the new dispensation of Jesus Christ.


This is a silly way to start a gospel—with a thoroughly Old Testament ritual. But it’s also the perfect way. The prophecy that unfolds begins with the story of Israel and all the temple-focus that it entails. Jesus and his parents come to the temple. And it’s in the temple during this ceremonial offering that Simeon discovers something new. Our faith—our freedom from the old and embrace of the new—begins here. Simeon did not wait for the Christ to show up in a town square or in a synagogue or in a palace. He waited in the temple. Sure, the churching of women seems more than a bit old-fashioned. Yes, it’s ridiculous to suggest that my wife is unclean until the priest presides over a service that makes her pure in the eyes of God and the community. In fact, that’s appalling. But that’s a starting point. The transaction of purity that is undergone by Jesus’ parents is held in distinct contrast to the declarations of Simeon and Anna. Where is salvation to be seen? Where lies the “redemption of Jerusalem?” They see it—and we see it, too—because of where this story starts and where it ultimately ends up. 

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