We can assume that Jesus was a breastfed baby; after all, he survived. Before the human-made miracle of baby formula and without access to a potential wet nurse, breastfeeding was the only option. So that first Christmas (which I seriously doubt was a silent night) certainly included Mary breastfeeding her baby, Jesus. Even being the firstborn son of God did not change that. From the moment he entered the world, Emmanuel (“God with us”) needed Mary’s milk to live.
Women are often painted as a weak or defenseless sex, but those who know actual women recognize that as a blatant lie. She who has the power to incubate human life, push it out of her body, and fiercely protect it while guiding it through the world is more powerful than we can even fathom. God incarnate was born to this woman, deceptively labeled by most of society in her time and ours as vulnerable, yet immensely powerful nonetheless. God in Jesus would get used to being mischaracterized, stereotyped, and potentially shamed just for being who he was from the moment he first nursed at his mother’s breast. Yet while political maneuvering and the fate of all creation hung in the balance, Mary was Jesus’ whole world. Her breasts flowed with life and sustained his life.
Jesus was dependent on his mother’s responsiveness to his needs but also on the power of human instinct. After giving birth, one strategy for beginning breastfeeding is to place the newborn on her mother’s abdomen a little bit away from the breast, then let her scramble-crawl to the breast to latch herself. It is astounding, but they can do this. Newborns minutes old with no command of their muscles follow the scent and their instincts to the source of life. Maybe Jesus did this too. Although his life would be guided by faith that we do not live by human food alone, the scramble to mother for first food is innate.
Colostrum is a symbol of that essential reality. The first milk after the birth of a child – colostrum – is made of different stuff than the breast milk that comes later. It is protective, immunizing, irreplaceable. Even mothers who know they will not be breastfeeding long-term are encouraged to try for the sake of that first food which their infants can get no other way. Colostrum also has a mild laxative effect, so the newborn human can perform that essential organic function: producing their first stool. In this, even God the Heavenly Father cannot supply what Mary can: antibodies and the blessed ability to poop.
Even when the baby latches well and breastfeeding seems to go smoothly, it is alarmingly frequent. Tiny newborn stomachs can’t hold much at once and their miniscule but mighty sucking power wears out quickly. But everyone is worn out after the miracle of birth, the pain, soreness and swelling; so (except for the potential interruption of shepherds) everyone should be able to claim some unconscious time from pure exhaustion that first night. Maybe that is when the “Silent Night” lyrics can be hummed.
Then comes a fresh challenge — for us it was on the second night — of cluster feeding. It felt as if our daughter awoke, instantly furious, every 20 minutes that night. I was so grateful that we were still at the hospital so I could ask the nurses, in my sleep-deprived delirium, what in the world was happening with my baby. There was nothing wrong with her. She was doing her part to bring in my milk supply. That “helpless” newborn nurtured her own food supply by demanding frequent feeding. The oxytocin hormone released from all that breastfeeding sustained me through so many sleepless nights and bonded us despite the exhaustion.
Did Jesus “cluster feed”? Could he generate love in his mother through repeated demands on her body? Every child attempts to do so, why not God?
While God in the person of Jesus was embodying the instinct and dependency of being fully human, perhaps God the Father/Creator was experiencing what it also is to be the non-birthing parent. Whether as an adoptive parent or partner to the birthing mother, the limited influence and helplessness of the One Without Milk looms large, and it lasts for a while.
My husband claims that our daughter head-butted him within her first hour of life, so upset was she at discovering (while being held skin-to-skin) that he did not have the breasts of milk. I believe him; her determination is legendary. The Milkless One can certainly provide and care for the breastfeeding child in other ways, but they are often confronted with their lack of ability to meet that essential need. The bonding and attachment must be more intentional, repetitious, and insistent in the face of preference for the other.
If that is not a metaphor for the dance of faith, I don’t know what is. Yet God chose to know that helplessness intimately, when Jesus was born of a human mother, laid at her life-giving breasts.