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.
We don’t ordinarily associate fear with Christmas, and yet throughout
the accounts of the Incarnation, everyone is afraid. Zechariah, Mary,
Joseph, the shepherds, even King Herod is terrified upon hearing the
news that a child will be born in Bethlehem. What’s so scary about a
babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger?
My extended family once had so many males named Frederick that the women in the family assigned each of us a number so the tribe could distinguish between us at family reunions. I became Fred IV. A casual observer might have thought that we considered ourselves royalty, or perhaps a line of renegade popes.