Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of late medieval and Renaissance paintings and sculptures depict the Virgin Mary with one breast exposed as she is nursing the infant Christ. The origins of the image are disputed, but whatever its origins, depictions of the lactating Virgin acquired new meaning and new urgency in mid-14th-century Tuscany. In communities under siege from plague, wars and malnutrition, the Virgin’s breast was a symbol of God’s loving provision of life, the nourishment and care that sustain life, and the salvation that promises eternal life.
The glad song Mary sings to her cousin Elizabeth in Luke’s Gospel functions like a lighted magnifying glass. It illumines, making possible the discernment of something that was there all the time, but difficult to see without aid. Mary sings of the whole new order of things that God is creating all around us, one in which the hungry are filled with good things and the rich, who have unwisely filled up on so much that does not satisfy, are emptied so that they can have their real hungers met at last.
When I was a small boy in Ireland my parents would take us to our grandfather’s farm near Castlecomer in County Kilkenny. On the farm there was a hired man whose name was John Brennan. John lived in a thatched cottage about half a mile away. In the evening after the cows were milked, he would sit on a large flat stone outside the stable door and smoke a stained clay pipe. Sometimes I would sit beside him and he would tell me stories.
At Christmas even the most Protestant among us can be drawn to the contemplation of Mary. It seems right to recall her humble courage, her receiving and carrying and giving birth, and her joy as she sang of the saving work of God.