October 5, 2014, Sixteenth After Trinity
Isaiah 12, Psalm 116, Ephesians 3:13-21, St. Luke 7:11-17
Artist, thy name is woman. Thou hast molded within thee and brought forth into the world a masterpiece, a child fashioned in the image of God.
If I asked you to open your prayer books to page 497 you would find there a short service titled, “The Thanksgiving of Women after Child-birth/Commonly called the Churching of Women.”
It begins with some rubrics, one of which instructs the woman to kneel. Then the minister recites this prayer: “Forasmuch as it hath pleased Almighty God, of his goodness, to give you safe deliverance, and to preserve you in the great danger of child-birth; you shall therefore give hearty thanks unto God, and say . . .”
A rubric then instructs the minister and woman together to say Psalm 116, our psalm for today. The words gurgle up from a deep spring of thankfulness. The minister and woman begin:
My delight is in the LORD, because He hath heard the voice of my prayer;
2 Because He hath inclined His ear unto me; therefore will I call upon him as long as I live.
After the psalm the minister says the Lord’s Prayer, followed by a brief responsive reading:
Minister: O lord, save this woman thy servant;
Answer: Who putteth her trust in thee.
Minister: Be thou to her a strong tower;
Answer: From the face of her enemy.
Minister: Lord, hear our prayer.
Answer: And let our cry come unto thee.
The minister next recites a prayer which begins, “O Almighty God, we give thee humble thanks for that thou hast been graciously pleased to preserve, through the great pain and peril of child-birth, this woman, thy servant, who desireth now to offer her praises and thanksgivings unto thee . . .”
The service concludes with a blessing on the newborn child.
So here, within the space of a few minutes, are references to the “great danger” and “great pain and peril of child-birth.” What’s all the commotion?
None of us, of course – not even those of us born with outdoor plumbing – imagines delivery of a child to be an easy or painless enterprise. But in our day the risk to the mother is not grave. And so, a bit of history:
In 1818, Ignaz Phillip Semmelweis was born into a world of dying women. The best hospitals lost one out of six young mothers to the scourge called “childbed fever.”
A doctor’s daily routine began in the dissecting room where he performed autopsies. From there he made his way to the hospital to examine expectant mothers – without ever stopping to wash his hands.
Dr. Semmelweis, in his native Hungary, was the first physician to associate the examinations conducted by their doctors with the resulting infection and death of these expectant mothers. He began to wash his own hands with a chlorine solution.
Eleven years later, he had delivered 8,537 babies and lost only 184 mothers, about one in 50. He spent all his time away from his patients trying to convince other doctors to wash their hands.
On one occasion he told them, “Puerperal fever is caused by decomposed material, conveyed to a wound. I have shown how it can be prevented. I have proved all I have said.
“But while we talk, talk, talk, gentlemen, women are dying. I am not asking anything world-shaking. I am asking you only to wash. For God’s sake, wash your hands.”
Almost no one paid attention to him. Doctors and midwives had been delivering babies for thousands of years without bothering to wash first, and they refused to believe they needed to change.
Dr. Semmelweis died insane at age 47, and women went on dying because the men who were supposed to be taking care of them would not be cleansed.
So as late as the 19th century delivery was not only a painful but also a terribly and unnecessarily dangerous enterprise. A Christian woman who brought forth a healthy child and lived to tell the tale had more than ample reason to pour out effusions of thanksgiving to God.
The church offered this service to mothers – it appears never to have been mandatory – from an early date. The very name "churching" suggests a pilgrimage of thanksgiving to the church.
In Roman Catholicism it has been folded into the rite for baptism. Our prayer book still sets it out separately and I have seen it used within the last few years.
Its basis is the purification ritual for Jewish women following childbirth in Leviticus 12. A warning: Modern ears turn red upon hearing of this procedure . . . for two reasons.
For one or two weeks after delivery, the mother was contagiously unclean, just as during her menstrual period. She was not allowed access to the sanctuary and anyone or anything she touched became unclean.
On the eighth day, a male child was circumcised. The mother was no longer contagious but remained unclean within herself and could not go to church or touch anything holy, including meat from a peace offering.
After the time of purification – 40 days for a boy, 80 days for a girl – she was required to bring a purification offering and a burnt offering to the tabernacle. Even though she had not entered it, her presence in the camp had contaminated the altar.
Her first offering purified the sanctuary, the second secured forgiveness of sins and expressed her gratitude to God and her renewed dedication to Him. But how had she become unclean in the first place? Had not God commanded her to “be fruitful and multiply”?
What’s more, Leviticus 15 tells us sexual union rendered both husband and wife unclean. The long duration of the time of uncleanness indicates a matter God takes ever so seriously. Israel should have taken a dim view of childbirth but we find just the opposite.
These Jews of old counted a married woman without children in the throes of calamitous misfortune at best -- think, for example, of Sarah, wife of Abraham, and Hannah, mother of the prophet Samuel -- and under God’s judgment at worst.
The second puzzling issue involves why the time of uncleanness for a girl was double that for a boy.
The best answer to the first comes not from a theologian but an anthropologist . . . and, fittingly for this sermon, from a woman. In 1966, Mary Douglas published “Purity and Danger,” a best-seller that has gone through several more printings and ranks as a classic in the field.
She discusses the taboos of multiple cultures, including “The Abominations of Leviticus” in chapter 3. Her study determined that defilement for a woman with a flow of blood was part and parcel of the Levitical principle of wholeness.
A person losing blood was not whole and, as a result, not only potentially in danger of death, the antithesis of the life God gives, but ceremonially compromised.
Leviticus also presents blood as the very stuff of life and the stuff of atonement, or purification. It is, thus, the best cleanser from ritual impurity and at the same time, when in the wrong place, the most polluting substance.
God appears to be teaching the Israelites, and us, that our sin has turned that which He has made our highest good into a source of corruption. His first words to the woman after the fall were these:
"I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception; in pain you shall bring forth children; your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you" (Genesis 3:16).
We can apply the same rationale to our speech and science and logic. All are fallen, and so less than whole.
The best answer to the problem of a longer purification following the birth of a girl seems to be the obvious one: In the ancient world, males had more value than females. By way of illustration, the price to redeem a woman from slavery was about half that of a man.
One who took no offense was a certain virginal mother named Mary. Luke reports in his gospel:
“Now when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were completed, they brought (the baby Jesus) to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord . . .and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the law of the Lord, ‘A pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons’” (2:22, 24).
The evangelist’s emphasis on the law points us to the One who had come not to abolish the law of Israel but to fulfill it. His parents, as observant Jews, did not question it but kept it; it came from God.
The church, while grounding the Churching of Women in the purification ritual, appears to have reoriented it very early on. The first direct reference we have to the ceremony is from Pope Gregory in the sixth century.
He says in no uncertain terms that childbirth conveys no defilement to the mother. The early church treated the rite as a means for the mother to offer thanksgiving to God and to receive a blessing from His priest.
In the United Kingdom and Ireland, there arose some time later the folk wisdom that a woman must not leave her house following childbirth until she had been churched. It was said that the fairies found such women comely and were liable to spirit them away.
And that brings us round full-circle and back to our psalm, 116, hopefully with a bit of context from how the church has seen fit to use it even from bygone days. Priest and mother together join their voices to that of the Psalmist, hurling praises toward the high heavens and to a God whose mercies know no bottom.
Considering the peril of childbirth even in the day of Dr. Semmelweis, they had much to be grateful for.
Ancient Israel likely used this psalm in a service of thank offering in the temple at one of the great festivals. A libation of wine fulfills the Psalmist’s vow of a thank offering he made in his time of affliction.
I love the LORD, because He has heard my voice and my supplications.
2 Because He has inclined His ear to me, therefore I will call upon Him as long as I live.
3 The pains of death surrounded me, and the pangs of Sheol laid hold of me; I found trouble and sorrow.
4 Then I called upon the name of the LORD: "O LORD, I implore You, deliver my soul!"
5 Gracious is the LORD, and righteous; yes, our God is merciful.
6 The LORD preserves the simple; I was brought low, and He saved me.
7 Return to your rest, O my soul, for the LORD has dealt bountifully with you.
8 For You have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, and my feet from falling.
9 I will walk before the LORD In the land of the living.
The Psalmist does not specify the cause of his terrible trial; he may leave it vague intentionally so all who have suffered can enter his psalm. And we do.
We were sore afraid, the Psalmist and I. I can tell you I know to a certainty that God knows me . . . but I suspect you’re shrewd enough to glean that I will not know the weight of His presence until I am in His presence.
What awe! To be at once radically known by God and radically loved by God, exposed and embraced.
If I could shut Him out I would not let Him in. But in He is. He sought us out, the Psalmist and me. So it is that I am known, yet loved. Could aught but God do this?
He has led me out of that shadowland called Sheol, the realm of trouble and sorrow, and into the light of the land of the living.
10 I believed, therefore I spoke, "I am greatly afflicted."
11 I said in my haste, "All men are liars."
I felt oppressed and spent – I could not trust in men -- but I pressed on . . . in faith. As pain betokens life, despair summons faith. Absent faith – which comes from God – the game is up. Job tumbled down the long, dark chute of self . . . but at its bottom he landed gently on the feathers of his faith.
He knew all along God was there. Beneath, above, in hell as in heaven, in wind and weather, God abides. His is Lord of all.
12 What shall I render to the LORD for all His benefits toward me?
13 I will take up the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the LORD.
14 I will pay my vows to the LORD now in the presence of all His people.
15 Precious in the sight of the LORD Is the death of His saints.
A bishop named Babylas, martyred in the persecution of the Emperor Decius, died with these words on his lips. His death was his deliverance, and the greatest danger evokes the deepest gratitude.
The Psalmist offers up his libation of thanks, promised during his affliction, before one and all in the temple precincts. He invites them to enter his joy.
16 O LORD, truly I am Your servant; I am Your servant, the son of Your maidservant; You have loosed my bonds.
17 I will offer to You the sacrifice of thanksgiving, and will call upon the name of the LORD.
18 I will pay my vows to the LORD now in the presence of all His people,
19 In the courts of the LORD'S house, in the midst of you, O Jerusalem. Praise the LORD!
Once a prisoner under sentence of death, he has been freed from one form of bondage that he might enter into another. He binds himself to the One “whose service is perfect freedom,” as we pray daily in Morning Prayer. In thrall to God, he is free at last.
And so we blend our voices – mother, priest, doubter, martyr, self-righteous one, faithful one – and celebrate the God of all. The Psalmist leads us in the song he gave us, a song he got from God. His name be praised. Amen.