“Symeon's hands that bore You, my Christ, were a type of the bosom of the Father.”
Forty days have just passed since the birth of the God-man, and the Lord is offered to the Temple by His Virgin Mother, and the elder Symeon received Him. According to the provision of the Mosaic Law: “When the days of her purification are completed, for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring to the priest at the doorway of the tent of meeting a one year old lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering” (Lev. 12:6).
When the elder Symeon received the Lord of Glory in his hands, he said: “Now let Your servant, Master, depart in peace according to Your word…”, because the elder Symeon waited for many years to see with his eyes his Lord and God. And now that he was most satisfied he could go to God's bosom.
After this general introduction, it is understood that the Sarantismos has its roots in the time of Moses. It is called “Sarantismos” (“fortieth-day), because the mother offers the newborn child to the church to the glory of the Holy Triune God forty days after its birth.
The woman, after her pregnancy, requires a certain period of time to return to her prenatal state (this is what is meant by the misunderstood term “unclean”). This period may be less than forty days, especially in our times of scientific advancement, but seeing that the Holy Fathers adopted this symbolic number at a different time when it would have taken longer, it is to our benefit to obey them.
The woman, therefore, following the example of the Panagia, after forty days brings her infant to the church for two reasons. First, to introduce the child to the church, so that it may soon be baptized and participate in the worship life in Christ. And second, that the mother may be purified (since the prayers read during the Sarantismos refer to the purification of the woman).
We observe that when the woman comes to the church to receive from the priest the blessing of the Sarantismos, the priest doesn't allow her to enter into the main area of the church, since she is still considered unclean until the completion of the prayers of purification. She is unclean, but she is not a sinner, as many people misunderstand today. The woman did not commit a sin, to the contrary she brought a human being to the world. Holy Scripture calls anything excreted from the male or female body unclean, and for this reason the woman remains in her home for forty days after her pregnancy, that she may become completely purified in order to once again participate in the life of worship of the church. This is why the priest reads the prayers in the narthex of the church, and then takes the child in his arms and introduces it to the nave of the church. Then the woman enters the nave of the church after being purified through the prayers, and she kisses the icons with reverence and receives back the child. All these things are done to imitate the example of our Lord and His Mother.
Let us now take a brief look at the Service of Sarantismos.
Today, as we know, the Service of Sarantismos consists of four prayers. The theme of the four prayers is the introduction of the infant into the church according to the example of the Lord (in accordance with the provisions of the Mosaic Law). The prayers are blessings for the infant and petitions for it, who in imitation of the Lord is introduced to the church and dedicated to God. This is the apparent purpose of the Service. The child is brought into the church, not the mother. The mother accompanies the child and is blessed with it. It should be noted that the blessings are for both parents together, and not just for the mother, as it is commonly believed.
It should be further noted that the infant is still unbaptized, and two of the prayers read during this Service indicate that the child has not yet entered the church, therefore there is a petition that “in due time” the child will receive Holy Baptism. Besides, the prayers read over the child on the first day of its birth, the eighth day and the fortieth day exhibit a progressive character and are considered pre-baptismal acts. The progression is evident. On the first day the baby is blessed to welcome it to the world. On the eighth day it receives its name and is called a “servant of Christ” and a “Christian”. On the fortieth day it enters the church of God and is offered to Him. Following this there should be a Catechism, Baptism, Chrismation, and Divine Communion.
Also, according to tradition and the formal provision of the Service, after the reading of the prayers, the priest holds the baby in his arms and introduces it within the Holy Sanctuary, indiscriminate of its sex. According to the esteemed liturgical professor John Fountoulis, neither the prayers nor the formal provisions of the Service make a distinction between gender, but both male and female children are to enter the Holy Sanctuary and be presented to the Lord (as the priest raises it in his hands to heaven) as a “gift” and “dedication”. Where else can it be offered as a gift to God, except in His Sanctuary? This action has nothing to do with with the priesthood being reserved for men. Rather it is an act of offering of the new human being to God, and for Christianity there is no essential distinction between male and female.
To conclude, the Sarantismos is an ancient liturgical practice of our Church, which has its roots in the Mosaic Law, and today it is done according to the example of our Lord Jesus Christ's reception, and the woman symbolizes the Panagia, who bore her Son in her arms and offered Him as a welcome sacrifice to the Temple.
By Michael Papatheocharis
Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.