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The Motherhood of Christ

Mike Aquilina links to Catholic News Service article that makes mention of breastfeeding imagery associated with Holy Communion. (The article has apparently since been revised; I can’t find the specific wording immediately below in the article Mike links.) With respect to the custom of receiving the host on the tongue‚ as opposed to in the hand, the article states,

Bishop Schneider said that just as a baby opens his mouth to receive nourishment from his mother, so should Catholics open their mouths to receive nourishment from Jesus.

“Christ truly nourishes us with his body and blood in holy Communion and, in the patristic era, it was compared to maternal breastfeeding,” he said.

I don’t have a dog in that fight, so I’ll withhold comment on the liturgical issue at hand. I did, however, want to provide a brief summary of some of the ancient writers who indeed compared Christ’s self-giving, on the cross and in the Eucharist, to the act of breastfeeding:

A cup of milk was offered me
And I drank it in the sweetness of the Lord’s kindness.
The Son is the cup
And the Father is he who is milked
And the Holy Spirit is she who milked him.

Because his breasts were full
And it was undesirable that his milk should be ineffectually released.

The Holy Spirit opened her bosom
And mixed the milk of the two breasts of the Father

Then she gave the mixture to the generation without their knowing.
And those who have received it are in the perfection of the right hand. (Odes of Solomon 19:1-5)

The Word [i.e., Christ] is all to the child, both father and mother, and tutor and nurse. (Clement of Alexandria, Paedagogus [ANF 2:220])

Celestial milk poured out from the sweet breasts of a young bride … [Christ's] little children, with their tender mouths, are nourished by those incorporeal nipples. (Clement of Alexandria, Hymn to Christ the Savior)

Thy breasts are sweeter than wine and the odor of thy ointments above all ointments … in this comparison which shows how far superior is the milk we draw from the divine breast to the joy we derive from wine, we learn that all human wisdom or the exercise of the imagination cannot be compared with the simple nourishment we derive from divine revelation. (Gregory of Nyssa, Commentary on the Canticle)

Just as a woman nurtures her offspring with her own blood and milk, so also Christ continuously nurtures with his own blood those whom he has begotten. (John Chrysostom, Baptismal Instructions 65)

Though the Most High, yet he sucked the milk of Mary, and of his goodness all creatures suck! He is the Breast of Life and the Breath of Life: the dead suck from his life and revive. (Ephrem, Hymns on the Nativity)

He who has promised us heavenly food has nourished us on milk, having recourse to a mother’s tenderness. For just as a mother, suckling her infant, transfers from her flesh the very same food which otherwise would be unsuited to a babe, … so our Lord, in order to convert his wisdom into milk for our benefit, came to us clothed in flesh. (Augustine, On the Psalms, vol. 2)

Although not explicitly linked to breastfeeding imagery, the following quotations from the Middle Ages also describe Jesus in an explicitly maternal fashion:

But you also, Jesus, good Lord, are you not also Mother? Are you not Mother, who are as a hen who gathers her own chicks under her wings? Truly, Lord, you also are Mother. For that which others have been in labor with and have born, they have received from you. (Anselm, Oratio LXV ad Sanctum Paulum Apostolum [Migne, 158:981-82])

We realize that all our mothers bear us for pain and for dying, and what is that? But our true mother, Jesus‚ All-love‚ alone bears us for joy and for endless living, blessed may he be! Thus he sustains us within himself in love and hard labor, until the fulness of time. (Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love)

Christ was humankind’s foster-mother, enduring with greatness and strength of the Deity united with your nature, the bitter medicine of the painful death of the cross, to give life to you little ones debilitated by guilt. (Catherine of Siena, Dialogue)

This is powerful imagery the church needs to do a better job of reclaiming.


2 Comments

  1. Mike says:

    Have you seen “God’s love, mother’s milk: An image of salvation” in The Christian Century?

    http://www.christiancentury.org/article.lasso?id=4272

    Like

  2. D. P. says:

    I wasn’t aware of that article. I’ll be sure to give it a read. Thanks!

    Like

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