Breast-feeding in the Back Pew
This Christmas, many of us will strive once again to reflect on the significance of the Incarnation. We will try to remember, amid the usual busyness, the strange wonder of God coming to earth as a baby, of an unwed teenager carrying God-in-the-flesh in her flesh.
If it is remarkable that an ordinary woman carried our Savior in her body, it is equally so that she nourished him with that same body—specifically with her breasts.
Our world looks so different from first-century Palestine. Today an unmarried pregnant woman does not fear the public embarrassment that Joseph spared Mary, and a baby would be born in a stable only in an absolute emergency. If he had followed the customs of the time, Joseph wouldn't have attended Jesus' birth. Yet for all the ways modern Western culture seem brazenly relaxed compared with the culture of Jesus' time, there is one act we're more squeamish about, especially in our worship spaces.
Early this year, a Georgia woman claimed she was kicked out of worship for breast-feeding her infant. I know a bit of what she must have felt: On a family trip to St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City, as I started to breast-feed my son in the sanctuary, I was whisked away by a security guard to the bathroom. Countless other Christian women, trying to feed their children without having to miss a sermon, have faced the disapproval of others who think breasts have no place in the sanctuary.
How widespread the no-breast-feeding rule is in U.S. churches is hard to say. But one thing's clear: Our squeamishness over breast-feeding has little precedent in the church. Instead, Christians have long celebrated this aspect of Jesus' early life. Church father Ephrem the Syrian wrote a collection of hymns on the Nativity, including this, which connects the humble picture of Jesus nursing from Mary's breasts to Jesus' generous provision as King of all creation:
The Lofty One became like a little child,
yet hidden in Him was a treasure of
Wisdom that suffices for all.
He was lofty but he sucked Mary's milk,
and from His blessings all creation sucks.
Ephrem's comfort with a breast-feeding Mary appears in much devotional art through the centuries. Tender images of Mary nursing Jesus, known as Maria Lactans, flourished after the 13th century, when theologians and artists began contemplating a fully human Christ. But in the 16th century attitudes changed, and the Council of Trent condemned nudity in church art; Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel nudes summarily received painted loincloths and other strategically placed cover-ups. With Pope John Paul II's approval, the coverings were removed during the chapel's renovation: "The human body," he said, "can remain nude and uncovered and preserve intact its splendor and its beauty." It's not just Catholic thinkers who have gone this route. Martin Luther celebrated the physical bond between Mary and Jesus, noting in his famous Christmas sermon that Mary "nourished the child with milk from her breast and not with strange milk … her breast being filled by heaven, without injury or impurity."
Following in the footsteps of the church fathers, our sacred spaces should likewise embrace the human body in all its mess. In a culture where breasts are perennially on display—but where breast-feeding is often regarded with disgust or at least embarrassment—allowing mothers to breast-feed in worship would counter how sexualized breasts are in modern culture. It would also communicate respect for mothers, many of whom feel shunned or outlawed when asked to use segregated rooms to feed their babies. The earthy eloquence of breast-feeding, even in church, would also remind us of both the humanness of our Savior and of God's loving sustenance of us through all the seasons of our lives.