"Christ Himself was a Christmas present. The note of material Christmas presents is struck even before He is born in the first movements of the sages and the star. The Three Kings came to Bethlehem bringing gold and frankincense and myrrh. If they had only brought Truth and Purity and Love there would have been no Christian art and no Christian Civilization." (G.K. Chesterton)
There are a number of pictures of "Mary as Nursing Mother", of Mary breastfeeding the infant Jesus. Some of these are very ancient: the earliest is found as a wall paining in the Priscilla Catacombs, around 250 AD. The apocryphal Protoevangelium of St. James, which probably dates even earlier from around 125 AD, the infant Jesus "went and took the breast of its mother Mary".
Ancient Roman culture, into which these depictions came, did not have a legacy of regarding women's breasts as especially erotic. For depictions of women in Ancient Rome:
"Breasts receive relatively minimal attention in erotic art and literature as a sexual focus; the breast was associated primarily with nursing infants and a woman's role as a mother."(4)
The designs really took off in the Middle Ages. Starting with the 13th century Almesbury Psalter, there is a vast outpouring of paintings by artists including Van Eyck in 1486. Most of the English wall paintings were probably obliterated at the Reformation, but one or two survive, such as one in a chapel at Belchamp Walter, Essex.
Mary may not be feeding Jesus, but her breast is bare, ready to do so. It is an image that modern Christianity, probably because of lingering Puritan influences, may feel uncomfortable with, just as it has taken some for modern societ to accept the mother breastfeeding an infant in public is not something disgusting, but something quite natural, that most ancient societies would have taken for granted - if not the mother breastfeeding, then a "wet nurse" ( "a woman who breastfeeds another's child") for which is is evidence as far distant as 2000 BC (2).
But in the early modern period, breasfeeding interefered with the aristocratic women's clothing, and by the 1880s, "liberated" and "progressive" mothers saw breastfeeding as out-of-date. Mrs. Panton said "Let no mother condemn herself to be a common or ordinary 'cow' unless she has a real desire to nurse."
There is a tremendous physicality in the Christmas stories - as the opening quotation from Chesterton notes - what is brought by the Magi are physical gifts, not ideals. This is a marked contrast to the ancient Gnostics, and even to a more modern Gnostic take like that in 1956 by Samael Aun Weor:
"Therefore, when we state that Jesus was born in a manger, we are esoterically affirming the spiritual birth of Jesus. The manger of Bethlehem is only a symbol. The spirit of wisdom (Ruach Chokmah-El = Christ) always reincarnates in this manger of the world in order to save the wretched, suffering humanity from the animals of the manger: the human passions."
For Weor, the manger is a symbol of human passions that must be overcome, but for the artists who depicted Mary as a nursing mother, the opposite was true, the manger was a place where human passions were blessed, including images of Mary suckling the infant Jesus.
We are missing the early pages of the 2nd century Gnostic Gospel of Mary, but the theme of the birth was probably similar: "Matter gave birth to a passion that has no equal, which proceeded from something contrary to nature. Then there arises a disturbance in its whole body." Likewise, in that strange text which is the Gospel of Philip, the truth is that "The world came about through a mistake."
To say, as one text does, "The truth did not come unto the world naked, but rather it has come in symbolic images." is to set up a false contrast between physicality and symbol. The heart of the Christian story of the infant Jesus is a bringing together of the physical and the symbolic. That is something we still probably shy away from.
The story of the stable would see a Mary breastfeeding an infant Jesus, the stable would be full of the earthy smells of the animals that had been there. It would not be pristine, sanitised, but messy. A world away from the natitivity plays, magical though they can be. The recent BBC production "The Nativity" had Mary's giving birth depicted with a degree of realism that most films about Jesus ignore. She's crying out in pain, the midwife is telling her to push, and she's reaching upwards, and then Jospeh's hand reaches down and holds hers. And then we hear the baby wail as it is born, but born into a world with pain. What made it so refreshing was the realism, and yet that doesn't detract from but rather enhances the symbolism. The world, Paul says, has been in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.
Presents themselves are echoes of Christmas giving of the Magi. And they also call us to reflect on the mystery of Christmas, not something spiritual above or opposed to the material world, but something which takes up and enhances the material world. That's so well brought together by John Betjeman:
And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window's hue,
A Baby in an ox's stall ?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me ?
And is it true ? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,
No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare -
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.
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