This past Sunday was the first time my youngest son, Gabriel, and myself have been back to church since his birth. We made arrangements with our priest to have our 40 Day Blessing before Orthros so we could attend the entire Liturgy with our family.
It is an Orthodox canonical tradition for the mother and baby to come to the church 40 days after the birth where a short service is offered for them. The priest will meet the mother and child in the narthex where he will say prayers for both of them.
Then the priest, in imitation of the Prophet Simeon, will walk with the baby in his arms into the church and up to the sanctuary. He will say additional prayers and make the sign of the cross with the baby. This is inspired by the encounter Simeon had with infant Jesus and the potential greatness in the sight of God of each child proclaiming and living their faith as they continue to grow.
Then shortly thereafter, he returns the infant to his mother.
So why do we have 40 Day Blessings? It is a Tradition which emulates the Old Testament custom of parents bringing their baby to the Temple for the first time on the 40th day. During those first 40 days, it is a time of rest and bonding for the mother and child. It takes approximately six weeks for a woman’s body to heal after giving birth to a baby and for the menstrual flow to cease. If you think about this in the context of history and the inventions that have come along since then, it just wasn’t practical for women to leave the house after giving birth back then. Therefore women stayed home for the first 40 days after birth. We see an excellent example of this custom in scriptures when the Theotokos brings Jesus to be presented in the Temple. We commemorate this event, the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, on February 2nd.
Even though modern medicine and the use of feminine hygiene products have softened some of the hardships of childbirth, the 40 days custom is still practiced in the Church today. You can even still see a glimmer of this old custom in modern day society where most jobs allow women to take 6 weeks of maternity leave. (42 days)
Therefore traditionally, the first place the baby is taken by their mother is to church on their 40 Day Blessing.