As Christmas draws closer, a new question has emerged this year connected to the early days of Jesus’ life – the very early days.
Some are wondering why there is a lack of modern imagery showing baby Jesus breastfeeding with his mother Mary.
The Religion News Service has posted a report on the matter, titled “Christmas’ missing icon: Mary breastfeeding Jesus.”
In it, writer David Gibson notes, “all the familiar scenes associated with the holy family today – creches and church pageants, postage stamps and holiday cards – are also missing an obvious element of the mother-child connection that modern Christians are apparently happy to do without: a breast-feeding infant.
“Jesus certainly wasn’t a bottle baby. So what happened to Mary’s breasts? It’s a centuries-old story, but one that has a relatively brief answer: namely, the rise of the printing press in 15th-century Europe.”
He says the new technology led to a demystification of the human body, plus a new-found focus on the text of Scripture as opposed to the use of images.
Gibson quotes feminist scholar Margaret Miles, dean of Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and author of “A Complex Delight: The Secularization of the Breast, 1350-1750,” who suggests the printing press also shifted Christian artwork away from baby Jesus nursing to the adult Jesus being crucified.
Religion News Service quotes Miles:
“It was the takeover of the crucifixion as the major symbol of God’s love for humanity” that supplanted the breast-feeding icon, she said. And that was a decisive shift from the earliest days of Christianity when “the virgin’s nursing breast, the lactating virgin, was the primary symbol of God’s love for humanity.”
In fact, the oldest known image of the Virgin Mary is from a third-century fresco in a Roman catacomb that shows the infant Jesus suckling at her exposed breast.
From those early traces, the motif of “Maria Lactans,” as it is called in Latin, became increasingly popular – and increasingly graphic – an illustration of what the Catholic writer Sandra Miesel called “the shocking fleshiness of our faith.”
By the Middle Ages, the breast-feeding Mary was shown in every possible context, and “lactation miracles” and “milk shrines” proliferated across the Christian world. Mary was “the wet-nurse of salvation,” as one phrase had it, offering holy succor to communities exposed to the vagaries of war and disease. Some images of St. Bernard of Clairvaux even show him kneeling in prayer before a statue of Mary, who is squirting breast milk onto his eager lips.
The report is now coming under fire from the likes of Ken Shepherd at Newsbusters, who called the story “utter nonsense,” saying, “[M]odern Christians should not be characterized as “silly prudes just because no one imagines much less shops for a Nativity scene which depicts a bare-breasted Virgin Mary feeding the baby Jesus as the cattle, shepherds and magi look on.”
Obviously Marian art has been around since early in church history, but to argue that it was predominant, more so than the crucifixion, is absurd. To argue that the “primary symbol of God’s love for humanity” was, from the days of the early church to the Reformation, “the virgin’s nursing breast,” is clearly contradicted by the biblical teaching that, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (1 John 4:10 ESV)
To Christians, Christmas is about Jesus taking on human flesh to redeem His people. The Nativity is the earthly beginning of a divine rescue mission that met its climax at the crucifixion, was vindicated by the resurrection, is ongoing through the ministry of the gospel in the church Christ commissioned, and will be completely realized at Christ’s glorious return.
That’s truly the greatest story ever told, but Miles seemed fixated on Mary’s mammaries, and ultimately shifting the focusing away from the Christ child to Christ’s mother.
Last year, when Berjuan Toys introduced a new doll called “The Breast Milk Baby,” the company, in the face of some public criticism, actually invoked images of Mary in support of its product.
“Churches all over the world are filled with images of Mary nursing baby Jesus, and yet we can’t imagine letting our daughters learn how important breastfeeding is for our society?” said Dennis Lewis, U.S. spokesperson for Berjuan Toys. “Americans have been duped into believing that breastfeeding is shameful.”