There is a tradition within the Church that a woman is "churched" 40 days after giving birth to a child. In common practice, she refrains from attending Church during that 40-day period, giving primary attention to her child, her health and such matters. The return to Church marks a return to a more public life, as well.
A mother's churching consists in making confession (to prepare for communion) and in prayers offered by the priest in thanksgiving.
There is also the "churching" of a child that is part of the service of Baptism. In this part of the service the priest carries the newly-baptized child into the Church with prayers. It is the "offering" of the child to God. After this offering, the child is returned to the arms of its mother accompanied by the Prayer of St. Simeon. And it is the scene with St. Simeon that explains the mystery of churching.
The Old Testament Law required that every first-born male should be presented to God in the temple with a special offering being made. This presentation was to take place 40 days after birth. Many scholars believe that this Old Testament law served to replace the very common pagan practice of child sacrifice. The pagans of the Middle East practiced child sacrifice (the first-born male) in an offering to Moloch, one of their gods, in an effort to guarantee continued fertility. It was the notion that the first child belonged to the god.
Such terrible practices were the context in which God called His people into existence. The Law of Moses was a revelation of the goodness of God and a deliverance from the heinous practices of the time. Mystically, we can say that there was, indeed, the sacrifice of a first-born child - but it was God's own self-offering in Christ to deliver us from death and bondage to sin. The practice of child-sacrifice was a very dark echo of this mystery that was hidden until the time of Christ.
February 2 is 40 days after Christmas, and is the feast that marks Christ's presentation in the Temple by his parents. In Luke's gospel we are told that Joseph and Mary encountered an old man, Simeon, who had been promised by God that he would not die until he had seen the coming Messiah.
Simeon, filled with the Holy Spirit, saw the child and recognized that God had fulfilled His promise. Taking the child in his arms he offered this prayer:
These words are now a hymn of the Church, sung at every Vespers. Every child Baptized in the Church re-enacts this scene of Christ and the Elder Simeon. We offer our children to God who then gives them back to us. They are redeemed and freed from bondage to death and sin.
Lord, now let Your servant depart in peace,
For my eyes have seen the Savior
Whom you have prepared for all the world to see:
A Light to enlighten the Gentiles,
And the Glory of Your people Israel.
The Vigil of this feast is Wednesday evening at 6:30 and the Liturgy is Thursday at 8 am. Candles are blessed on this day, in remembrance of Simeon's words, "A Light to enlighten the Gentiles." Let us keep the feast!