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Should women approach for Holy Communion while on their menses?
Answer to Question 147
For the majority of girls born and raised in the Orthodox tradition, puberty marks the time when their mothers not only set them down to discuss with them the facts of life, the changes that God intended their bodies to experience, and the hope of someday becoming mothers, but also marks the time when their mothers expose them to the tradition of “Ritual Impurity” and the teachings of “Uncleanness”. Pious Orthodox mothers all explain to their young impressionable daughters that while they are experiencing the blood of life, they are in a period of uncleanness, and therefore, must never touch anything at all related to the worship of God. This, mothers inform their daughters, includes not going to church, not venerating icons, kissing the hand of a priest, and especially not participating in any Sacrament, most importantly that of Holy Communion.
For some girls, this is calmly accepted as a fact of womanhood. But for others it becomes an obstacle to spiritual growth, causing disdain for church practices which to the present day educated woman does not make sense. If God created women to experience the flow of blood at puberty in order to make their bodies capable of bringing forth life, and thus working with God in synergy in His creative energy, why would God then banish women from all forms of worship and piety while experiencing their "blood of life"?
The prohibition of women entering the church while on their monthly menses stems from the Old Testament laws found in the Book of Leviticus. The old law was very strict and considered a woman unclean during her period for seven days, but if her period lasts longer she is unclean for all the days until her flow of blood stops. What we must understand is that the Leviticus laws were not made up by Moses, they were given to him by God to educate a lawless people to respect the things of God.
Chapter twelve speaks of women's uncleanness after giving birth and the period for their cleansing. If a woman gives birth to a male child she is considered extremely unclean for seven days. During this period she will be isolated and no one must touch her otherwise they also will be unclean. On the eighth day the son will be circumcised and after this she will still be considered unclean until the fortieth day, but not as extreme as the first seven days because now she may be touched by others. During the forty days she cannot enter the temple or touch anything holy. Now if she gives birth to a female child the days of her uncleanness are double. The first period of extreme uncleanness will be fourteen days with another sixty six days of lesser uncleanness making a total of eighty days. After the forty days for a boy and eighty days for a girl, the mother is to make an offering at the temple of a whole lamb and a young pigeon or turtledove, but if the mother is poor she can bring as her offering only two young pigeons or two turtledoves. This is the kind of offering made by the Mother of God after her forty days of purification.
We can say that the period of uncleanness is a physiological period of necessity so that the mother can recover completely from childbearing, but why the difference in the sexes, why only forty day for a boy and eighty days for a girl, is God being prejudice towards the female sex?
Firstly the period of purification has nothing to do with the woman's recovery because medically there is no difference between giving birth to a boy or girl so the answer must have a religious character. In fact the answer again goes right back to Adam and Eve. A woman who has given birth is unclean because by giving birth she is passing on the consequences of the original sin to the next generation. The consequences of the original sin are disease and death, in other words, the mother is a carrier of disease and a transmitter of death.
Now I’m not sure if everyone will understand this and I can see another storm coming so let me try and explain. God did not create disease and death, he create man as an immortal being. Death came into the world after Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s commandment and fell from grace. Death is evil and is the consequence of being separated from God and which Adam and Eve brought upon themselves through their own free will.
The difference in the forty days for a boy and eighty for a girl is because original sin came into the world through the female sex. Adam was not really deceived, the woman was deceived and transgressed and then made Adam to transgress with her. As such she has a double transgression on her shoulders, her own and Adam's. The Christian church developed and grew from the Jewish faith and inherited many of its laws and traditions. This is true of the birth laws, but without the discrimination of the sexes or the necessary sacrifices for purification.
From the first day of birth the Priest is called to the family home or the maternity clinic as is more common today, to pray for the newborn child and the speedy recovery of the mother. The prayers for the mother have a penitent character asking for the forgiveness of her sins and one of the prayers also mentions to forgive all the household where the child has been born and them that have touched her.
On the eighth day the child is taken for the first time to the Church usually by the father or another member of the family, but not by the mother who is not yet allowed to enter the church. At this occasion the child is sealed with the sign of the Cross and officially receives it's name, imitating thus, our Lord Jesus Christ, who on the eighth day after His birth, was taken to the Temple and duly circumcised according to the Jewish law which He Himself had given through our forefathers and the Prophets and had been observed from the time of Abraham.
On the fortieth day the child is again brought to the Temple this time by the mother, who having fulfilled the forty days of purification according to the Law of Moses, is again accounted worthy to enter the Holy Temple. The child at this time is presented to be churched, that is, to begin attending Church. Prayers are said for both mother and child and again the prayers for the mother have a penitent character, or rather refer to her uncleanness e.g.: "In the fulfilment of the forty days, wash clean the impurity of her body and the stain of her soul that being accounted worthy to enter thy holy Temple she may glorify with us thy most holy name..."
It seems almost incredible that Old Testament Leviticus laws would infiltrate the Church of Christ, especially after the Lord's strong teaching against viewing the letter of the Law as a means to salvation rather than the spirit of the Law and after St. Paul's strong exhortation against Judaizing Christians. Yet, for reasons of practicality, the Church has in its wisdom comprised canons to help in its proclamation of the truth, and in its governing practices.
The first canon dealing with ritual impurity is the Second canon of St. Dionysius, Archbishop of Alexandria, who lived, in the mid-third Century. He states: “Concerning menstrous women, whether they ought to enter the temple of God while in such a state, I think it superfluous even to put the question. For I opine, not even they themselves, being faithful and pious, would dare when in this state either to approach the Holy Table or to touch the body and blood of Christ. For not even the woman with a twelve years' issue would come into actual contact with Him, but only with the edge of His garment, to be cured. There is no objection to one's praying no matter how he may be or to one's remembering the Lord at any time and in any state whatever, and petitioning to receive help; but if one is not wholly clean both in soul and in body, he shall be prevented from coming up to the Holies of Holies.”
St. Dionysius declares that not even women, themselves would dare to approach the Chalice while experiencing their "monthlies". However, no explanation as to why is given. Two questions thus arise from this statement: first, did the women of this period hesitate to attend Services and approach the Chalice when experiencing their "monthlies" because of the poor hygiene of their times? Or were these women greatly influenced by the Judaizers of whom Paul had written, who desired to keep the Law? Though Paul argued strongly against this by addressing Circumcision of the male body, still, many women may have been told of these female impurity laws in private, by their mothers, and thus were passed in this manner into New Testament times.
I propose that as poor hygiene practices made women uncomfortable in entering Church buildings and receiving the Sacraments, a canon was written not so much to ban women, but more so to excuse them from not receiving, as Christians in those days received at every Liturgy. Women living in that historical period were bound to their bed or seat until their periods were over. Their hygiene practices were to stay in one place for seven days to avoid physically defiling areas with which they would come into contact.
Had it not been for modern hygiene practices, I am sure women of today would also hesitate to attend Church services or exit their homes like the women in these early centuries. Lack of sanitary hygiene would seem to be the most probable reason for women in any society hesitating to approach the Chalice. Women today are most fortunate, being able to come and go as they please while their "monthlies" remain undetected.
If Dionysius' reasoning is due to hygiene practices, then his reasoning in today's society would no longer be valid, and the Church would need to re-examine its position dealing with ritual impurity. If, however, his reasoning is due to the Leviticus Law, then the Church has to seriously examine the theological implications this canon puts on the Orthodox teaching of Salvation by Grace. The Church must seriously examine to see if Dionysius' interpretations with regards to ritual impurity is in harmony with the Church's teaching on Creation, and Redemption, not to mention its Sacramental theology, especially dealing with Holy Communion.
Another canon dealing with the question of menstruation is from Timothy, Archbishop of Alexandria, in the latter part of the fourth century whose canons are known as "The Questions and Answers". Question 7 asks: "If a woman finds herself in the plight peculiar to her sex, ought she to come to the Mysteries on that day, or not?" Timothy's answer was very short, "She ought not to do so, until she has been purified."
Both Dionysius and Timothy speak of the woman being “purified” but what do they actually mean because there was no purification practice for a woman undergoing a normal menstrual. Did Timothy view a woman’s purification to be that of having simply finished her "monthlies", or did he like the Old Testament prophets view her as needing a rite of purification from sin? Did the Fathers view this natural body experience as sinful?
Although men are exempt from the “monthlies” they are not exempt from purification rites. A canon by St. John the Faster, who lived in the late sixth century states: “Anyone, who has been polluted in sleep by reason of an emission of semen, shall be denied communion for one day; but after chanting the fiftieth Psalm and making forty-nine metanies, it is believed that he will thus be purified. (canon 6) Thus, according to the Canons of the Early Church Fathers, men also have periods of ritual impurity, and unlike women have a purification rite.
There are certain ancient writings that condone women partaking of Holy Communion while on their monthly period like the Apostolic Constitutions and the Letter by St. Gregory, Pope of Rome to St. Augustine of Canterbury mentioned by Harry Georgiou, but these have not been recognized by any Ecumenical Council. Just because one is recognized as a saint of the Church it does not mean that the Church automatically recognized that all the writings of that person are considered as gospel truth.
An example is St. Augustine of Hippo. Both the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church recognize him as a saint and although the theology of the Catholic Church is strongly influenced by St. Augustine’s writings, the Orthodox Church considered much of his writings as heretical. It does not mean that the Orthodox Church thinks of him as a heretic; many fathers wrote on certain subjects while in their youth which were contradictory to the Orthodox faith, but as they grew older with wisdom their views changed and came in line with Orthodox thinking.
Contrary to these writings, I think it is safe to say that no one believes that a women is separated from God during her menstrual cycle, or that she cannot pray, or that she cannot come to church, or cannot venerate the holy icons, or is deprived of the Holy Spirit. Nor does anyone teach that having a menstrual cycle is in any way sinful. Nor is the custom of women refraining from communion during this time an absolute prohibition.
We do, however, have customs of ritual purity in the Orthodox Church. For example, when clergy are vesting for the liturgy, we ritually wash our hands -- not because they are physically dirty. Any clergyman with any sense has washed his hands before he comes into the Church. However, this action does remind us of our need for spiritual cleansing. If a priest cuts himself when serving the proskomedia, he must leave the altar, and not return until the bleeding has stopped. This also applies to anyone who is bleeding, he cannot partake of Holy Communion until the bleeding has stopped. If a priest is driving and a young child runs out in front of his car, and is killed, that priest will never be allowed to serve the Liturgy again -- not because he killed the child intentionally, because he has blood on his hands, and so can no longer offer the bloodless sacrifice of the Eucharist.
With the New Testament, the Old Testament worship has been replaced by a new Liturgy (Hebrews 8:6), but this does not mean that there is no continuity between the Old and the New Covenants. Some things have been set aside completely, and other things have been retained to one degree or another. In the Old Testament we see that there was quite a bit of concern about blood, and we see that even in the New Testament this concern has not been set aside (see, for example Acts 15:23-29).
The customs that we retain have a symbolic and didactic significance, but they are not absolute. If a woman was in danger of death during her menstrual period, she would of course be communed without any hesitation, because then the didactic value of this custom would be superseded by the more immediate need to prepare the woman for her death.
The epistle of St. Gregory the Great said that this custom should not be obligatory, but it should be noted that he also says that if a woman wishes to observe this custom it is praiseworthy..., which is very much in contrast to the position usually taken by those who cite St. Gregory on this subject.
If someone wishes to argue that the canons of Ss. Dionysius and Timothy of Alexandria were due to the historical conditions of the times in which they lived, and that modern sanitation have made this practice no longer necessary, at least they are attempting to take the canons seriously rather than merely dismissing them. But those who take the position that the practice has never had any justification have a serious problem in explaining how these canons could have been affirmed by an Ecumenical Council, and beyond that, they have the problem in dealing with the Old Testament laws regarding menstruation. Do they not believe that the Mosaic Law was inspired by God? Regardless of whether one thinks we should observe the custom in question today or not, if "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness" (2 Timothy 2:15-17), then these laws could not be just a matter of ancient superstition, ignorance, or misogyny (hatred of women).
A lot has been said and I’m not sure if everything I have written is easy to understand, but to get to the actual answer of whether women can or cannot partake of Holy Communion while on the menstrual period, the canons of the Church clearly forbid this. Whether we agree with this or not we are obliged to observe these rulings and not make our own rulings. As members of a church we must trust that the canons of that church are for our good and salvation, even if at times they do not make sense. I think these rulings are there to help us to respect the Body and Blood of Christ and not to treat them superficially. They are traditions and practices that help us to approach the divine mysteries with the utmost reverence and not treat them trivially. It is not a question of the loss of blood that is important but our attitude towards the divine Mysteries. He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.