Breasts are a scandal because they shatter the border between motherhood and sexuality.
― Iris Marion Young
All three of the babies destroyed my breasts. During the early days of nursing I had to Lamaze-breathe through their latching-on to withstand the pain. My nipples blistered and scabbed, their suckling a violent and terrifying act. Soaked teabags relieved some of the pain, but the true remedy was for me to toughen up.
The work of birthing, nursing and growing infants is demanding and exhausting. The most exhilarating of experiences, while also reducing parents to shells of their former selves – better shells, but shells nonetheless. In this land of extremes, I found myself alternating between the profoundest joy and the deepest grief, my predictable existence flipped upside down by eight pounds. The cry of infant dictators a grave threat to my expectation of personal entitlement.
Once a mother arrives to the other side of childbirth, she’s been poked, prodded, splayed for the world to see. The body is reduced to function, to instinct, devoid of personal dignity. The early days are not about discretion, they are about function and nourishment and care for the tiny human. A good mother’s tantamount goal – to grow babies, to bond and keep them alive and fed and warm.
At this 2016 year-end, we have witnessed more tragedy, more corruption, more disappointment than a single year should offer. We need relief, we need rest, we need freedom from fear. Peace feels distant, but few things are more peaceful than providing witness to a nursing mother and her baby. And so, I sidle up to Mary, the nursing mother and her infant Christ. I gaze upon the fresh baby as I rest my weary, tear-stained cheek against her soft shoulder. Afraid to interrupt, I remain motionless as the baby gulps, pulling long for nourishment, for comfort. Jesus, the Christ, Emmanuel – fed by humanity, nurtured by humanity, held by humanity, bonded with humanity. Mary’s body, soft and supple, ready to receive her king.
I imagine Mary spent the nursing hours reflecting upon Jesus’s features. She and Joseph may have had a running commentary: Hey Joseph, are these my eyes or God’s? Whose nostrils are these? And what about that cowlick? I wonder if she trimmed his lengthening nails with her teeth, or breathed in his sweet, fresh infant breath. I suspect so.
I deposit my fear and worry before I rest beside her. I approach ready, willing, longing. My troubles, anger and confusion are immediately replaced by wonder, awe, and expectation. I shudder with chill when I remember this is no ordinary scene. THIS is the dawning of my King, Our King, Our Savior, the Messiah.
Shepherds start to trickle in, sheep in tow. They are unsure of proper protocol, this woman, reclined, feeding. This scene is foreign to them, uncomfortable. But babies must eat and Mary knows the urgency of his cry. She hesitates to share the Christ child, but she knows the work before her, the responsibility she bears. While she relishes the opportunity to bond, to reflect and ponder, to keep the baby for her own, she knows. She knows her road as a mother is long.
The shepherds really smell, no modern day hospital would let them in, their stench indicates unsanitary, unclean. But Mary knows. She knows God preferred a stench. She knows God prefers strangers and dirt and unrefined. And so, she knows what she must do.
Her bent finger breaks the seal between babe and breast. She covers herself and offers the baby to Joseph. Joseph cradles his head with great care while tucking Jesus against his robe, craving the physical bond, also. But he knows this is not about him right now, so he steps toward the shepherds and displays before them the Christ. One tentative, grimy finger outlines the infant cheek, while another holds the infant hand, running his thumb across the dimpled knuckles. Another asks to hold Jesus, his scratchy robe an offense but not one that seems to bother the Christ. The man lowers his nose to the soft, downy head and takes a long and lingering inhale.
My body and mind have fought hard this year to make sense of events, to anticipate elections, to provide relief and understanding in my circles. I cannot fight anymore, it is the time for rest, for renewal, for my full presence with loved ones. And so, I seek the baby. I seek to nuzzle my nose, to imagine the circumstances of his birth, while remembering the births of my three. I imagine studying his delicate and beautiful features, hoping for a glimpse of God’s own. I imagine the bonding between mother and babe, hoping for a hit of calm in the midst of chaos. You can’t rush infants and you can’t rush feeding, and you certainly can’t rush love. And so I wait, watching, expectant.
The work of Love is slow, not to be forced or hurried. Love takes time and risk and patience. May we find our rest and renewal sidled up against the breast of Jesus, as his disciples did at the Last Supper. May we envision a world awaiting wonder with expectation. May we imagine the coming of Jesus as the lowliest of creatures, the lowliest of humans. And may we usher Jesus into our own lives through knowing the lowliness that lives in us, too. May we be humble and restful enough to receive Her King.
Merry Christmas, friends. I pray we find our rest and our peace.