"God's Love, Mother's Milk"
While in Seattle, I ran across the January issue of The Christian Century and saw this image on the front: the virgin Mary nursing a baby Jesus. Her naked breast lay on the front cover for the world to see, and baby Jesus, with all the presumptuousness of a baby, pulled her breast into his mouth.
I know this scene. I know it like I know my own heartbeat. The feeling of a baby curled up in your arms, their warm mouth gently pulling. I was immediately intrigued. I kicked up my heels and started reading. The article said that while the origins of the "lactating Virgin" image were uncertain, it gained new significance in Tuscany during the mid-14th Century. In communities consumed by plague, wars, and mal-nutrition, the image of Mary nursing Jesus became a symbol of "God's loving provision of life, the nourishment and care that sustain life, and the salvation that promises eternal life."
Gradually, this symbol lost it's meaning. The article goes into interesting details about how this happened, but I will tell you that by the late 1700's the image of the cross had arrived on the scene as the new depiction of God's love. It was, however, an extreme love born out of suffering and intense sacrifice, not the nurturing, life-giving love depicted by a nursing mother.
I have to tell you that this article cast a ray of light into my spirit. It opened a shaft of understanding. I've never understood the symbol of the cross as a depiction of love. I mean, not understood it in a bodily way. Not in a heart, mind, soul and guts kind of a way. When I see the cross I think of sacrifice ,and for good or worse, that's where the thought ends.
But when I looked at the painting of Mary nursing, I identified in a visceral way to her act of love. I feel those tiny palms ambling over the crests and valleys of my chest. I see two precious eyes, as wide as pools, searching my face. I remember the pain it took to learn to breast feed, the sores, the raw flesh, the exhaustion. I know the night and day physical demand. The way Jesus was never more than two hours away from his mother for the first four months of his life. I can imagine the way she must have staggered out of sleep, fumbling her child up to her breast. I can feel the way her breasts filled tight with milk when Jesus was not close to nurse. In short, I understand (as does every mother) the ceaseless demand of love, and then that strange abundance of grace that flows from some hidden crevice, even when you think you have reached the very last strand of sanity.
And to think that God experiences the same throes of love for me. Wow, I'd never thought of it that way.
Still, the mystery is left unsolved. I am baffled by a God whose care for me and every other human being exceeds the outer limits, even the boundless love of a mother.