(Note: In light of the Christmas season, I am taking a break from our Jesus Trail adventures. Today we head south for a visit to Bethlehem. We will return to the Trail in January. Merry Christmas to all our faithful readers!)
There is nothing more natural, beautiful, or healthy than a mother with a baby at her breast. Agreed?
So why do I feel weird?
It is because I have never been inside a building devoted to the celebration of lactation.
Until this moment.
I must apologize before this goes any further.
There are three reasons why I should not write this article. The first is because I am a male. I am beyond adolescence, over the giggles, past the stares. Good gravy, I’ve fathered and raised two children of my own! I’ve traveled in Third World countries where mothers whip out a breast as deftly as a Kentuckian with a television remote. I have some inkling how it all works. But I am still male.
The second reason why I should not write this article is because I am a Protestant. This place is waaaay deep into Vatican territory and waaay outside the sweep of my theological radar. The Franciscan flag flies overhead. The turf is indelibly marked. The symbols are on the walls. Nuns of the Sacramentine order (wearing unusually colorful outfits) hold a round-the-clock vigil. And, of course, the Virgin is everywhere, doing her motherly thing. Our Lady of the Milk discreetly lifts her flap in stone, paint, and metal. I’m guessing the celibate fathers appreciate the discreet part.
The third reason why I should not write this article is because my children, mother, seminary dean, and students may accidentally read it. This is why (surprise!), I am not really writing this at all, but simply reporting what my dear friend Ebenezer Flopmashlaper has researched on my behalf. Eb is looking over my shoulder at this very moment dictating the words you are now reading. I cannot be held responsible for anything that follows. JBE. Just Blame Eb.
The Milk Grotto is located in Bethlehem, just around the corner from the Church of the Nativity. Tradition holds that Jesus was born in a cave under the Nativity church (another story, another day). Not to be outpaced by their sterner and better whiskered Orthodox brethren, the Franciscans identified this nearby cave and tied some dangling memories of their own to it.
Matthew 2:13-15 describes how King Herod raged when he discovered that the Wise Men had snookered him. Joseph learnt from a dream what most folks already knew, namely, that Herod was having a thumpingly bad breakdown. So he took Mary and her newborn child, went lamster for a while, before finally jumping the border to Egypt. This is more or less the gospel account. Probably less. JBE.
The memory that grew out of the ground suggests that the Milk Grotto cave is where the family hid from Herod’s rage before the flight. This is why there is a very fine capital outside the entrance depicting the three making good on their escape.
(. . . Eb is going off at this point describing why this piece of art is his favorite in the whole place. He is an equid kind of guy. Bear with us for a moment. . . )
The rest is memories gone wild. Local tradition believes that Mary, the theotikos (“God bearer”), hid here for a while and nursed the newborn in the cave. Drops of her milk inadvertently fell to the floor. This is how the limestone of the cave turned from red to white.
The Milk Grotto is certainly cream colored.
(Eb says he was so curious that he reached up and scratched the ceiling lightly. The surface was chalky and soft. It powdered under his nail. It does not appear to be the usual Cenomanian limestone of the Judean hills. Frankly, I am aghast that Eb would do this, even in the name of Science.)
The site has been nicely renovated and is well presented (although the bathrooms were inconveniently locked when Eb needed them most). The cave system is modestly sized but extended by means of small nooks, crannies, and shrines. Places for private and group prayer are provided. Many people come to this place, some for very special reasons.
(Eb stops for a moment so I wait. He begins again slowly, deliberately.)
A chip of the rock or bit of powder from the cave can work wonders. Those who struggle with conception, fertility, or lactation may swallow the chips or mix them with water à la Carnation breakfast drink. Some even sleep with Milk Grotto dust under their mattresses.
Testimonies to the efficacy of these practices line the walls. Those needing special prayer can also write a note. The vigil-tenders promise to give these problems their full attention. Naturally, donations are appreciated.
How far back all of this goes is anybody’s guess. The structure seen today was built only in 1871. Mention is made of “Mary’s Milk” stones from Bethlehem in the time of the Crusades. Some mosaic fragments uncovered in the area go back to the 6th c AD. Of course, the Virgin’s milk as a relic caught the attention of Reformer Calvin who commented wryly, “Had the Virgin been a wet-nurse her whole life, or a dairy, she could not have produced more (milk) than is shown as hers” (see here for more sick Calvinistic humor.).
Despite Protestant cynicism regarding relics, pilgrimages, and dairies in general, the site elicits a twinge of emotion. Fertility issues are very real. That an entire religious industry has developed around this need speaks to the painfulness of the condition.
A couple sits alone in the back row of the chapel. Their heads are down.
Eb and I am confident that God hears our deepest prayers wherever and whenever we utter them. This, despite our superstitions, talismans, syncretism, and confused theology.
Likewise, Eb and I recognize that the incarnation of the Christ, is, by definition, fleshy. Part of the mind-boggling miracle (read, “brain popping” for our Gnostic homies) is how carnal the process appears. But isn’t this the very crux of the Gospel message? “And the Word became flesh (sarx) and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14).
I put my forehead on the keyboard, shut out Eb’s chatting for a moment, and try to imagine what it means for deity to be “born” or “created” (genomenos) “in the likeness (homoiomati) of humanity” (Phil 2:7). It is a most indiscreet act.