Rituals of “Re-birth” Are Based in Matricide by Carol P. Christ


The other night, while I was having dinner with two Greek women friends, one of them asked me what I learned studying theology at Yale. I responded that I learned that woman was created second; that she brought sin and death into the world; and that therefore woman must obey man.

Spurred on by a bit of red wine (on my part) and ouzo (on theirs), our conversation quickly turned into to a dissection of the Greek baptism ritual. I noted that during the baptism of her grandchild, my friend’s daughter was standing outside the church talking to me. When asked why, the young woman stated that the mother had no part in the ritual. This prompted one of us to ask whether the mother was even allowed in the church during the ritual.

In fact, the mother is allowed in the church, but our instincts was not wrong: the mother’s presence is irrelevant.

My mind floated back to a conversation I had with a Jewish feminist friend about her son’s circumcision. She stated that as a feminist she did not agree with a ritual that initiates a baby boy into the Jewish community but excludes girls. She said she did not like the idea that her baby would have his penis cut as a symbol of his entrance into the Jewish community. (Her reasons for agreeing to the circumcision were complicated.)

“But,” she continued, “my experience of my son’s circumcision did not focus on any of that. What became central for me,” she said, “was that I was required to hand my son over to his father and a group of men who would perform a ritual in which I had no part. I understood on a bodily level that they were taking my baby from me. The purpose of the ritual is to break the bond between mother and child.”

In the Greek Orthodox baptism, as in the Jewish circumcision, the mother must hand her baby over to others. “The godparents take possession of the child in the narthex [the entrance to the church]. There the priest removes Satan from the child. The prayer is followed by three Exorcisms.”

What mother could ever believe her child was possessed by the devil until a priest intervened?

If the child is a girl, the priest recites additional words that remove the sin of Eve from her tiny body. (The fact that girls and boys are treated differently at this point is not mentioned in the source from which I am quoting. Most parents miss this reference to theological dogma concerning the sinfulness of the female sex.)

Some mothers may believe what they have been taught about the sin of Eve, but I doubt that it would ever cross any mother’s mind to think that her baby daughter is already contaminated by this sin. The fact that the mother is not holding her child while the exorcisms are performed makes it clear that her opinion is of no consequence. She will hold her tongue.

When the exorcism is completed, the godparents follow the priest into the sanctuary. There the baby’s clothes are removed. “The person to be baptized (now undressed) will be anointed with the blessed oil on the forehead, nose, ears, mouth, chest, legs, feet, hands and back. The Godparent will then anoint the person to be baptized, to prepare him/her, just as an athlete prepares, to battle the demon who he has just renounced and to slip away from the grip of sin.“ (I have been told that the baby’s genitals are also annointed, but the source I am quoting also omits this fact.)

The baby is then placed in the hands of the priest, a man with a long beard, dressed in a long robe, black or brocade. The priest grasps the squirming baby in his unfamiliar hands, raising it above his head so that the whole congregation can see the baby’s nakedness.

The baby may be too young to feel shame at nakedness, but it knows that something is going terribly wrong.

The priest thrusts the baby into the cold water of the baptismal fount, making sure that its head is under the water. The baby is pulled from the water gasping for breath. And then it happens again. And again.

“Now the neophyte will be immersed three times in the Font which represents the ‘Tomb of Jesus’, symbolically being ‘buried’ with Christ, then ‘raised’ with Christ as the neophyte is removed from the Font and placed in the arms of the Godparent who is waiting for him/her with a white sheet. The truth of baptism  , , , is that the candidate for baptism has chosen to die and be reborn for Christ. ”

Though the baptismal fount is described as a tomb, it also is a male womb in which the baptismal waters of re-birth mimic that waters of birth.

During baptism, when the baby is crying for dear life, it knows that what is happening is not right.

Imagine if Uncle John forced a baby’s head under the bath water.

Any good mother would grab the baby out of Uncle John’s hands and tell him never to come near her baby again. The police might be called. They should be.

But when the act of holding a child’s head under the water is performed by the priest, the mother is not allowed to protect her child.

After the baptism, the child (if it is male) is taken behind icon screen to be presented to God. As girl and boy babies are not generally baptized at the same time, most parents are not aware that female children are not entitled to this honor due to the sin of Eve. (The source I am quoting again fails to note the differential treatment of male and female babies.)

The mother who has not taken any part in the baptism ritual is then asked to declare her gratitude for the ritual in which her child has been taken from her, in which her child has been declared sinful and exorcised, in which the child’s cries are ignored and she must ignore them, and in which male figures have been declared the true parents of her child.

“If the newly baptized person is a child, the mother of the child will then be called by the Priest to make the sign of the Cross and venerate the Icon of Christ thanking Him for the great blessing of rendering her child a Member of His Church. She will then be asked to kiss the hand of the Godparent as a sign of respect and gratitude for having assumed the high responsibility of assisting in the spiritual development of the child throughout its life as a member of the Church.”

Having claimed the child as its own, the Church also takes over the role of feeding it: “For at least the next three Sundays after the Baptism, the Godparent will take the child to Church to receive Holy Communion, its first taste of the Body and Blood of the Lord. Just as a mother physically nourishes the newborn infant with milk, so too the Grace of God offers as spiritual food, Holy Communion to its newest member, just born through baptism.”

My Jewish feminist friend was right.

The message of rituals of “re-birth” is clear:

  • Birth is neither holy nor sacred
  • The bond between mother and child is neither holy nor sacred.
  • A child must be re-born through the words and actions of men.
  • The mother is silenced.
  • The cries of the child are ignored.
  • A new world where fathers rule is created.

Need I mention that in the religions that preceded patriarchy, birth was sacred, motherhood was revered, the cries of children were not ignored, and the Mother Goddess was worshiped as the Source of Life.

Though I have focused on the Jewish ritual of circumcision and Greek Orthodox baptism, the point I am making is a general one. All rituals of re-birth intend to break the bonds between mother and child and to declare that the father and fathers are the only true parent. This is the matricide at the heart of patriarchy and patriarchal religions.

 

Carol P. Christ is an internationally known feminist and ecofeminist writer, activist, and educator who will soon be moving to Heraklion, Crete. Carol’s recent book written with Judith Plaskow, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology, is on Amazon. A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess is on sale for $9.99 on Amazon. Carol has been leading Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete for over twenty years: join her in Crete. Carol’s photo by Michael Honneger.

Listen to Carol’s a-mazing interview with Mary Hynes on CBC’s Tapestry recorded in conjunction with her keynote address to the Parliament of World’s Religions.

 

 



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28 replies

  1. This is so terribly and outrageously WRONG!!!
    Over fifty years ago, I refused to have my daughter “christened” because I simply would not make a life-long decision for the religious future of an infant who is without agency. My mother admonished me that she would not go to heaven should she die in infancy. My answer was that I could not subscribe to a belief, or worship a god, that would be so cruel as to doom an unbaptized infant. I suppose my decision broke my mother’s heart, but in retrospect we were both concerned for the spiritual well-being of an innocent.

    Liked by 5 people

  2. My goodness! This sounds like water boarding!!
    Interesting piece that confirms my rejection of Christianity…

    Liked by 2 people

  3. The conservative Christian church I grew up in, at least the mother still got to hold her own baby at the baptism font. A mere drop of water on the forehead of the baby is deemed enough. Thankfully. Should the baby cry the mother gets to comfort him/her.

    I recently watched a Tunisian short film, ”I’m with you” showing a young married woman witnessing a birth, the blood and indeed the baby being taken away from the mother, by an aunt who wrapped the baby in a cloth, telling the priest and other men present, the cloth is pure, in other words, untouched by the mother of the baby. The visuals at this point were such the women were mere spectres, shadows. The film maker obviously wanted to bring this point home. This vulnerable baby, presumably eight days old were taken out into the open air and the common knife (not a surgical instrument) held by the priest was flashed around considerably. And the mother and the other women were unable to help the screaming baby who was left on the table while the cloth, now spattered by the blood of the baby, was shown off with much fanfare. The young married mother took herself off out of the village, unhindered by her husband as she left. A recent film but set in what is supposed to be ancient times. There’s so much to say on the topic. Your post is a shock and an eye-opener.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Matricide and damned close to infanticide! The Episcopal rite of baptism is a very watered down version or rather much less watery. No whole body immersion, the mother is present, and the frilly, white baptismal gown stays on. But the intent is the same. Thanks for an excellent eye-opening post.

    Liked by 4 people

  5. I am not familiar with the Greek Orthodox customs discussed here, but in pre-Vatican II Roman Catholicism it was traditional for the mother to not go out, including church, for about 6 weeks. (I’m betting this was because of the post birth bleeding.) Then she had to be ‘churched” before returning to attending mass, etc. Since Baptism always happened very quickly after birth in those days, the mother was almost always excluded. And to this day, it is the godparents who hold the baby during the ceremony, though now both mother and father are present.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The custom of blessing a woman after childbirth recalls the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary mentioned in Luke 2:22. The Jewish practice was based on Leviticus 12:1-8, which specified the ceremonial rite to be performed in order to restore ritual purity. It was believed that a woman becomes ritually unclean by giving birth, due to the presence of blood and/or other fluids at birth. This was part of ceremonial, rather than moral law.[1] Wikipedia Churching of Women

      Liked by 1 person

  6. The baptism you describe is majorly scary and totally wrong for the baby and its mother. Babies are not born loaded with sin. They need to be protected, I think, from the sinful actions of the churches and the priests. It does indeed sound like waterboarding. Torture of both baby and mother.

    My son was “named” in a Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship. The UU Fellowship didn’t use either “christen” or “baptize” to describe a simple, loving ritual. I held my son, who was three years old, by the hand and we faced the congregation. The minister (a Harvard divinity graduate) picked up a rose and touched the top of my son’s head, his forehead, and his hands with it, pronouncing his name each time and welcoming him into the fellowship. The congregation responded with, “Welcome, Charles.” I think I remember that we sang something after that.

    Thanks for this post. Let it be a lesson to us all. Let’s cherish our babies and keep them out of the hands of the torturer/priests.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Mary Daly wrote of the powerful “reversals” used by patriarchy and here we see a central one! The delivery of every child “of woman born” is accompanied by a rush of blood and other sustaining fluids. The mother, the child and the birth process is a central miracle of the female body. She-who-risked-her-life is the central figure in this drama of life unfolding. Honoring her and the child of her womb should be the center of every concern and celebration. Clearly those who enforce patriarchy know this and must deny this reality at all cost! Thank you for your powerful post—one more attempt to make right those patriarchal reversals!

      Liked by 2 people

    • Welcoming rituals are part of egalitarian matriarchal cultures. They do situate the baby in the larger community but obviously without breaking the bond between mother and child.

      Like

  7. Oh my god just reading this is horrifying. And oh so true.

    “All rituals of re-birth intend to break the bonds between mother and child and to declare that the father and fathers are the only true parent. This is the matricide at the heart of patriarchy and patriarchal religions.”

    I’m also struck by a personal memory…I remember being told that newborns get spoiled by being held when they cried… I refused to follow directions, always picking up my babies when they cried and was endlessly criticized.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Brilliant, as usual. Thanks Carol for the deep thinking you do and sharing it with us and the world.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Thanks for this illuminating piece, Carol. So important to ask questions and dig deeply. Rituals/traditions are not innocuous.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Rituals/traditions are not innocuous.
      No they are not.

      While researching this piece I came across some posted videos of the Greek baptismal service. They were in some ways horrifying. But the parents were smiling. I am sure the parents thought they were simply defining their child as Greek. But on an unconscious level other more sinister things are going on.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Thanks for this Carol, it reinforces everything I have learned about patriarchal religions. The term ‘stolen generations’ used in Australia for the theft of Aboriginal children applies here too. Indeed, it also applies to figures like Persephone in the Greek tradition. When I was writing my novel Dark Matters, I realised just how integral to patriarchy is the theft of children whether by abduction and rape, following wars, resulting from conquest, or the theft of children by the military in places like Turkey/Armenia and in Chile under Pinochet. What I like about your piece is the structural analysis of religion as a patriarchal act of separation so that the bond between mother and child is broken. This is an act of what I call ‘breaking the spirit’.

    Like

  11. Wow, this is horrifying! In my denomination, the United Church of Christ, the parents, siblings,godparents etc. are present at the baptism and the baby is only sprinkled with water. Carol, I have a favor to ask, may I share this, minus everyone’s comments, of course, with my Bible study class? I’m going to be teaching a course on women in the Bible, starting with Eve.

    Like

  12. Thank you for saying this so plainly and clearly, Carol. In patriarchal cultures boys must be brutalized — to make them ‘real’ men — so that they can brutalize others. There is at least one brutal culture in which a boy is considered to be becoming a man when he first strikes his mother and begins to give her orders.

    Like

  13. I can certainly agree with your feminist critique of the rituals you are describing. You are spot on about how wrong so many parts of the theology and the praxis are in the rituals you describe. I appreciate your pointing out all the many levels on which it is violent and untrue. Violent lies such as those are indeed toxic and important to reject. I do find many modern baptism rituals in progressive churches to be beautiful and nonviolent. In fact, many clergy I know use the symbols of baptism to highlight the female aspects of the (infinite) divine, who creates mothers in her holy image, such that this divine blessing of sprinkling water and embracing a new life with the faith community is quite feminist in tone, as well as gentle. Of course, baptism did not start out as a magical exorcism, but rather as a way that people who had been learning about the movement could choose to join it officially and to dedicate their lives to spreading the liberation and wellness by living out The Way of discipleship. I chose to Christen and Dedicate my own babies, so they can choose to be baptized whenever/if ever they want, and if that day comes, it will be done with a female clergy person, female language, and the rebirth will be a symbol of how butterflies emerge from cocoons, and seeds turn into flowers, and the rhythms of life, death, and rebirth are a holy dance in which we release the lies of patriarchy and embrace our true, divine, sacred, perfect selves. So the circle turns, from a ritual of dedicating one’s life to liberation, to a ritual of oppression, to a ritual of liberation again. Humans are so messy, and our communities always fall into oppressive patterns, and then we need prophets to point that out and help guide us back to wellness. I appreciate your prophetic voice, and I hope it makes an impact where needed. <3

    Like

    • The ritual you describe sounds lovely.

      I do wonder however if anyone needs “a new life” which to me is based on saying that the life they were born into is not good enough or fundamentally flawed. Who knows what early Christians were thinking and doing: still I believe that early Christian baptisim was based on dying to an old life and being reborn into a new one: if so, the rejection of the mother who gave you birth is implicit, I think. It is part of the deep structure of all re-birthing rituals.

      Among the Minangkabau there is an elaborate ritual welcoming the newborn baby into the community. It does not however invoke the rebirth metaphor. Its purpose is to affirm cultural meanings (such as the value of nurturing the weak by both females and males) and to strengthen the kinship ties to the baby so that it will be cared for in the wider community.

      Like

  14. Absolutely true and horrific. The death obsession and jealousy of patriarchy knows no bounds.

    Like

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