This book that I’m holding my hand is called The Small Euchologion, which is the prayerbook of the priests. It is what we use for all the parts of our spiritual life, the priests, and it contains all the prayers that we use from the beginning of life to the end of life. In its pages the prayers that are expressed in this book remind us that the Church, and, through the Church, God—[the Father], the Holy Spirit, and Jesus Christ: the Holy Trinity—is constantly with us; they are constantly with us throughout every stage of our lives, and they accompany us along the way.
So everything we do as Orthodox Christians has a spiritual or should have a spiritual dimension in our lives. Why do I say this? Because now, the beginning of September is the beginning of the ecclesiastical year, and last week we spoke about time, about the beginning of time, the beginning of the Church year and how we measure time. It is important to know how we Orthodox Christians use our time and how we connect our spiritual lives to our practical, daily lives.
So for the next few weeks, I will be focusing my sermons not on the daily gospels, but rather on this theme of Orthodox life as it pertains to the different stages of life that we have from birth to death and what it means for us and what is expected of us and why we do the things that we do and why it is so important for us to do the things that we do. I will give an emphasis to the ecclesiology of the Church, and that word, “ecclesiology,” if we haven’t heard it before, basically means the discussion of what the Church is and the boundaries of the Church, and talking about what it means to be part of the Church, to be a member of the Church, to be within the Church, and what it means to leave the Church, to step outside of the boundaries of the Church, and the consequences of that, because that can also happen during our lives.
Today I just wanted to start at the very beginning, which is the very first pages of this book, which is the birth of a child. We have three main traditions that are associated with the birth of a baby. I find, as a young priest dealing with a lot of and advising and meeting with a lot of young couples, either that they are giving birth or that they are getting married, that unfortunately in the majority of our Orthodox Christians in this country are completely ignorant of these traditions. They’ve never heard of them, so they’ll never call the priest to come and do these prayers. They have no concept of the fact that these prayers are extremely important in these stages of our lives.
So the first three traditions that are extremely important are, first of all, the prayer on the day of the birth. Usually a priest should be called when a woman gives birth, either the day that she gives birth or the next day, so that he can come and do a specific prayer, not for the baby, but for the mother, so that she can heal quickly. Often, if the mother is an Orthodox Christian, the priest will often bring some holy water for her and have her drink some so that she can heal. The Church always prays for the woman to heal quickly, not to have complications, and to be back on her feet so that in a quicker period of time she can come back to the Church and come back to her family and be able to continue on with her life. So that is the first prayer that we do on the first day of the birth. Again, most people never call me, unfortunately for that.
The second prayer, which is even less known, is the eighth-day prayer. Now, on the eighth day, which is virtually unknown, is the giving of the name. Again, many people don’t know about this. Most people in Greece, at least, there is a Greek tradition that we don’t give a baby its name until the baptism. We have wrongly associated the giving of the name with the baptism, and technically the sacrament of baptism has nothing to do with giving of the name. The sacrament of baptism, which we’ll talk about next week, has to do with the entrance into the Church, the entrance into the body of Christ. But the giving of the name happens officially on the eighth day.
Can anyone guess why it happens on the eighth day? Well, if we think at the feast of the first of January, which is not New Year’s for us, as we said last week, but rather it is the double-feast of both St. Basil the Great, but also the Circumcision of our Lord: the giving of the name and the circumcision of Jesus Christ. Why? Because in the Old Testament, Jews used to circumcise their sons on the eighth day and give their names on the eighth day. Of course, because Jesus was a Jew, he was circumcised and received his name on the eighth day. The early Christians, because they were originally Jews and then converted because they recognized Christ as being the Messiah, they continued this tradition, and we continue this tradition to this day, where we are supposed to, again, call the priest to come to our home—or to the hospital if you happen to still be there—close to the eighth day—if not on the exact day, close to it—so that the priest can bless the child and give the child’s name, and then we can use the name from that point on.
The third important tradition is, of course, the 40-day blessing. The 40-day blessing we all see here. It’s much more common. Thank God most people still do it. Here at Sts. Constantine and Helen, we have a beautiful way of doing it, where we do it with everybody here before we give out the antidoron so that everybody can greet the baby and see the child and welcome them into our community. Many people will ask, “Well, Father, this is a lovely innovation that you do,” and I always remind them that this is not an innovation. This is not something that I made up or another priest made up or I saw it somewhere else done and I thought it was a good thing and we’re doing it here like this, but rather the more ancient tradition is to welcome the children when the whole congregation is here.
There’s really no point to do it when no one is here, because the point of that prayer—and you can hear it when I read it in English for the mothers—is that we are presenting the child to God, we are thanking God for giving us a healthy child, and we are also presenting the child to the congregation, and we are saying that at the appropriate time, as the prayer says, we pray that the child is worthy to be reborn through water and the Spirit, which is of course baptism, so that he can be attached to Christ and his mysteries and to receive the body and blood of Christ, holy communion. So that 40-day blessing is bringing the child into the Church.
Now there’s a little bit of controversy, I know. We hear a lot of things, and I know some people are going to disagree with me today about the reason why the wife, the mother, usually stays home for 40 days. I know that in the village in Greece many, many things have been said, but I’ll tell you the two reasons why the 40-day blessing exists. There is a spiritual reason, and there is a practical reason. If we look at the Old Testament again, we will see that the Jews have two beliefs. One was from a spiritual point of view that they did believe in the Old Testament, according to Levitical law, that the woman was unclean from the time of birth until her body was done healing, and that she was not allowed to approach the temple. However, if we read Paul the apostle, in his epistles we see that Paul the apostle was very adamant that we are not to adhere to those type of ideas, because Christ has come to renew all things and that we do not follow the purification rites of the Jews. So this idea that women are unclean is technically not an Orthodox idea, but rather a Jewish idea that sometimes has crept back into our traditions but is not really part of the Christian faith.
The second reason why women are waiting 40 days to go to the church is for healing. If we remember, in the ancient times there are no hospitals, there are no antibiotics, and so for a woman to heal and also for her child to stay away from large populations of people who can give the child diseases and microbes and all these kind of things, the child is staying at home with his or her mother and is breastfeeding, taking the antibodies from the mother and building its immune system. So from a very practical point of view, it is very, very wise to keep a child away from large populations. We see that today, too. Many women today, whether they’re Orthodox or not, will prefer to keep the child away from large areas, especially at church, where there’s 400 of us on Sunday who want to pinch the cheeks of a baby and say how cute it is—[Laughter]—which is a wonderful thing, but the child may get sick. So it is a wise thing for a mother to stay home.
The reason why I make this sermon and clarify this is that because today of course women heal much faster—we have hospitals, we have medications, we have all these things—do not look down on any women who leave their home, go to the doctor’s, take their child to their pediatrician, have to go out to do some shopping. They can do these things. They are not evil; they are not sinning. So we have to be very, very careful about these kinds of things. So the most important thing is for the mother to bring the child to the Church, to bring the child here so that we can accept the child into the community and that God can bless the child and they can pray that the child will be ready to be baptized at a certain time.
These are the three main points, the three main stages at the beginning of life that are extremely important to remember, not just to set up the 40-day blessing, but also the blessing of the mother on the first day and the blessing of the child and the name-giving on the eighth day. It’s important to do all these things, all these stages, before we get to baptism, which we will be discussing later, in the next week’s sermon. May God bless you, and may you have a wonderful week. Amen.