Life begins at 40…or so birthday cards and makeup aimed at “mature skin” would have us believe. But there does seem to be something magical and mystical about the 40 day mark for infants. And the more I look into it, the more I realize that it marks the end of a liminal stage; after 40 days, it seems, the first stage of infancy, the transition from being in the womb, is over, and the infant is firmly ensconced in the world of babies.
Amalía is a ripe old 45 days old today, so this past Sunday we took her to be churched. This ritual involves the priest saying a prayer of thanksgiving and a blessing over both the mother and the child, and introducing the baby to the church. We Orthodox Christians (and some other Christian churches) perform this ritual as an echo of Mary bringing Jesus to the Temple when he was 40 days old, because under Mosaic law mothers visited the Temple on the 40th day for a purification ritual. (A little googling has taught me that today, according to halachic law, a woman who gives birth, in certain Jewish communities, is considered “niddah“, or ritually unclean, until she undergoes a mikvah, a ritual bath, but that women who have had c-sections are exempt. The message boards are full of moms-to-be wondering about the specifics of all of this; the most common advice seems to be, when in doubt, “ask your Rav” or rabbi.)
Like all rituals, there’s the liturgical explanation for the 40-day churching (we bring our babies to be presented at the Church the way Mary brought Jesus to the Temple), and then there’s all the folklore that rises up around it. Back in the day in Greece, the mother of the under-40-days old infant (who was known as a “lechona” in Greek; I think the equivalent in Hebrew is “yoledot”) would not leave her house, as this was considered a particularly dangerous time for the baby–it being a liminal stage and all. So when you went to get the baby churched, that moment announced your re-entry into society.
As with so many folk customs, this one crosses boundaries and spans multiple cultures. I recently read a New York Times article about “confinement centers” where Chinese new moms and their babies live communally for about 40 days and ease into motherhood; in such group homes women are offered five meals a day which consist of nutritious foods that are meant to help the uterus shrinks, and reduce swelling.
And several yogic websites noted that for 40 days after birth a child should remain within its mother’s aura (that is, within nine feet of her physical body) to ease the transition from being within her body to being a separate entity. One site went so far as to say that yogis believe mothers and babies share the same soul for the first 40 days after birth. (Woopsie! Amalía must be a pretty independent new soul because my husband and I have taken advantage of the presence of lots of grandmas to go on several dinner dates and to the movies twice within her first six weeks. But she’s never been outside my aura for more than 2 or 3 hours, so maybe that helps…)
So why 40 days? Maybe it’s because 40 is a mystically and liturgically important number–the Israelites wandered the desert for 40 years, after all. On the other hand, there does seem to be some connection between 40 days and the maximum amount of time a mother might have post-partum bleeding, so again, there’s the ritual purity aspect. Personally, I wonder if there’s something intuitive folk cultures understood about babies’ developing immune systems that makes 40 days the right amount of time for an infant to make its little debut into society. (Again, we fudged this rule; Amalía has been to happy hours and to the beach, but we consciously brought her only to outdoor settings, not to enclosed spaces with a number of people in them; our pediatrician advised avoiding such situations until after her two-month vaccines.)
Whatever the case, I got plenty of folkoric advice on Amalía’s 40 days. My aunts, the living and breathing Greek chorus to my life, wanted me to make sure I went on an odd-numbered day, not an even one, because an even number would mean my next child would be even to the one I have, i.e. another girl (which would be great with me–I’d love to give Amalía a sister). And they also said that since the blessing usually takes place on a Sunday, they’d heard it was better to do it before the actual 40th day, not after. But I asked my Rav, that is to say, the priest here at St. Sophia’s in Miami, and he said that the blessing should happen on the Sunday after the 40th day.
So yesterday we arrived at church as it was ending and waited in the narthex until the priest came and read a blessing and a prayer of thanksgiving over me, and then one over Amalía. He then took her in his arms and led us to the altar, where he read more prayers and blessings in Greek and English. There’s definitely an element of sexism here; if Amalía were a boy, he would have taken her into the altar; as it is, he read the blessings in front of it.
Nevertheless, I loved the ritual. I do feel so thankful Amalía’s health and mine, and for her very existence. I already felt blessed by Amalía’s presence; it seemed so right to have that acknowledged in a formal way.
My favorite part of the entire experience was when the priest said, “Bless also this child which has been born of her; increase her, sanctify her, give her understanding and a prudent and virtuous mind.” I felt a thrill at that moment thinking of the little baby in front of me as a person with a developing mind, one which, God willing, will be prudent and virtuous and joyous and expansive, and all the things that mothers in all cultures wish for their baby.