PATHEOS – Feb 2012
I am not a feminist. I feel compelled to say that right here at the beginning, probably as an apology. The truth of the thing is that I was born far too long before the feminist movement for my understanding of gender to have been shaped into anything like a contemporary posture. That does not mean that I don’t applaud most of the cultural and political changes that have been effected by the younger women who have come after me. I do. The point here, instead, is that it is the old ways I want to talk about right now, and perhaps even nostalgically so.
Today is the Purification of the Virgin. Or it was for all of us in the days of my wine and roses. It still is for most of the Roman Catholics and all of the Orthodox Christians among us. In point of fact, today is one of the twelve Great Feasts in Orthodoxy. For Roman Catholics, it is one of the four Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary; and even for some of us Anglicans, Episcopalians, and Lutherans, it is still a Principal Feast, at least on paper.
I miss having this day in all its full, traditional glory, though. [Otherwise, I would not be sitting here ruminating about the whole thing, probably]. 2 February is forty days after the Nativity and, by Jewish law, every woman who had given birth had to present both the child and herself before the priests in the Temple on the fortieth day. The child was there to receive a priestly blessing, and the woman was there to receive the rites of passage back into the community at large and to her renewed status as an active, working member within it. After forty days post-partum, the blood and fluids of childbirth had ceased to drain from her body, and her courses—those harbingers of returning fertility—had commenced again. She was back, in other words….back from that strange land where glory lies in agony, where mystery whispers a wonder that becomes one’s own, and where only the sisterhood of women can go.
Like any number of things Jewish, the rite of purification came, albeit amended a bit, into Christianity and stayed among us until a half century or so ago. Christians called the service “The Churching of Women,” and the order or rite can still be found quite readily in older prayer books and liturgical manuals. It used to be my favorite part of being an observant Christian, that time of Churching.
My forty days would pass, my body would rejoin the world of men, and standing before the priest, I would seal off into my heart the secrets that only God and I alone could ever know. The priest would say his holy words, and I would be churched right enough; but there still was a great, eternal joke between the Holy and me, a journey we had made, a delicious interruption in the quotidian that could never be unsaid or taken from me. It would be enough to sustain me until the next time.
I suspect that those emotions—and they are, of course, the quintessential difference between the genders, just as they are one of the three or four great mysteries in this life—I suspect that those emotions were for Mary two thousand years ago just as they have been for women in all the centuries since. Whether we wished it or not, they are both our identity and our unassailable keep.
But while Mary may have been the only one to fully realize the moment of her Churching, she was not the only one to perceive the mystery of the Child she was presenting to the priest; for the priest who conducted Mary’s purification was a prophet as well as a godly man. It was he—Simeon was his name—who had been given by the Spirit to understand that he would not be allowed to die until he had seen Messiah. It was he who perceived, through the Spirit, the wonder of the Child that had been born to this woman. And it was he who, taking the Child into his arms, spoke the words that the Church has spoken over and over again ever since…the words of the Nunc Dimittis:
Now, Lord, You dismiss your servant in peace, according to your promise;
for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.
It is the most serene and most fully realized prayer in all of the Judeo-Christian tradition, or at least it is for older Christian women like me; and I just wanted to stop and say so on this day of Churching. For one thing, I will not have all that many more February 2nds in which to indulge myself. But more to the point, there can never, ever be any better day than a February 2nd to assert again the ancient truth that our common faith must celebrate the body if it would instruct and sculpt the soul. One of the great, hovering possibilities in these times of Emergence and its shaping is that we will find our way back home to the perichoresis of our being, as well as to that of the Trinity in Whose image we are and worship. May it be so. May it be so.