My grandmother was, on the whole, a rather rotund lady. She struggled with diabetes for most of her adult life, so her metabolism didn’t function perfectly well. She loved fried fish too, so that may have had something to do with it. I learned as a youth that her weight actually caused her some physical difficulty, but, as a child, I found it a source of enormous comfort.
I have vivid memories of taking naps in Meme’s lap, stretching across her stomach and resting my head on her chest as she rocked me to sleep in her recliner. In cooler weather, I stayed warm. On hot Summer days, she would fan me with a newspaper as we rocked back and forth. As I grew older, I watched successive grandchildren and great-grandchildren experience the grace, comfort, and peace of Meme’s bosom. When my parents would get angry with Meme for challenging their point-of-view or questioning what she perceived as irresponsible behavior, they would sometimes make a pejorative comment about the way Meme coddled and pampered me. “It spoils you the way she just holds you there in her lap all day.” I loved her lap. It was my sanctuary.
Meme and I would often stay up at night watching the Golden Girls. We would share the recliner, with me snuggled in her lap, her arm around me, eating popcorn and laughing at Blanche’s antics while my grandfather and sister snored away in their bedroom at the end of the hall. There was no safer place in the world than resting on Meme’s bosom. Nothing could bother me or scare me if she held me close.
Thirty-one years after I was born, Meme had a stroke and steadily declined. I drove back to Arkansas from Georgia to see her just for a day after the initial stroke, taking a nap in the chair next to her while she dozed in her hospital bed. The family made a decision to bring Meme home. We would just see how things went, with nurses coming in each day to help keep her clean and local family rotating through the hours and days to be with her and my grandfather.
A few months later, my wife, daughter, and I drove back to Arkansas when we thought the time was drawing near, wanting to be with her once more before she died. When we arrived at the house, our daughter Evelyn, three years old at the time, surprised us and suddenly crawled up on the bed and snuggled next to Meme. Although Meme couldn’t really hug and hold, she looked around and moaned. She knew her great-granddaughter was loving her. I smiled through tears when I thought of all the children who had experienced the warmth of her lap and embrace.
Two days after arriving, around nine in the morning, Meme died. I drove straight to her house to be with my three aunts who were there with her. I knelt next to her bed, running my fingers through her hair, holding her hand, and kissing her forehead, thanking her for a life well loved, for the place of comfort and peace she always was for me—and always would be. The funeral director arrived a bit later and eased her body onto a gurney. He placed a sheet and a lovely blanket over her, and they eased her out the door toward the awaiting van. As they rolled her body across the driveway, I ran outside and asked them to stop for just a minute. I needed one more moment. Smiling through tears, I did the only thing that was natural to do, I leaned down and laid my head on her chest one last time.
“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” This sacred moment of the Visitation holds a crucial place in our understanding of the mystery of God’s Incarnation in Jesus Christ. Blessed Mary, the bearer of God, the vessel of the Incarnation, is honored by her cousin Elizabeth. When she goes for her visit, Elizabeth can’t hold back her thanksgiving as her own burgeoning child leaps for joy within her.
“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”
Interestingly, this word we translate as womb doesn’t exactly refer to the uterus. Rather, the koilia of the Blessed Mother is more of a hollow, a cavity within herself. It is a place for potential to sprout and grow. It is the space of the gut, a primal space, a heart-well, of possibility and insight, of hope and wholeness. “Blessed is that promise and possibility that is taking root and springing forth from within you,” we can imagine Elizabeth saying to Mary. The divine emanates from this point of contact within Mary, with ripples already spreading into the broader world in which the two women live.
Perhaps strangely, the Nativity texts themselves never describe Mary holding the infant Jesus. She gives birth to him and lays him in a manger. Even so, I can’t help but imagine Mary resting on a hot Summer day, fanning her little boy as he laid on her and slept. She was a true mother, a real mother, with the deep impulses to comfort and protect and defend.
Years later as Jesus enters more fully into his own ministry, we see a remarkable encounter within St. Luke’s Gospel that draws our eyes directly to this life-giving space within Blessed Mary. In chapter 11 of St. Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is casting out demons and teaching the gathered crowds, demonstrating for them that he does indeed embody this divine power. “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you” (11:20). In awe of this in-breaking reality, an anonymous woman in the crowd cries out, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nurtured you!” (11:27). The people realize that something profound has come among them, and already at the writing of St. Luke’s account, attention is being paid to the person—and symbol—of the Blessed Mother.
Notably, this exchange is never included at any time in the rotation cycle of the lectionary. We never hear this or encounter this image in preaching or worship, and I would argue this is much to our detriment.
Centuries later, mystics and sages throughout the Church continued to be drawn to Mary’s bosom, to the symbol of hope, protection, nurture, and promise it held—and continued to hold for those who sought the healing grace of Jesus Christ. In rich artwork, we see artists honor the seat of the Incarnation. Mary’s heart-well becomes a focus for deep reflection and imagination as so many continue to seek a space of nurture and compassion. A vivid artistic tradition of Maria Lactans arose, offering powerful images for meditation and prayer as sages and artists reflected on how Mary nursed her Son—and how we are, mystically, invited to share in this embodiment as well as members of Christ’s Body. The Eucharistic resonance is only amplified. One well-known image shows St. Barnard of Clarivaux kneeling in front of the Blessed Mother and the Infant Jesus, as Mary feeds St. Bernard from her own breast.
The texts come to life in new ways, as we imagine the words from St. Luke’s account in a new life: “Blessed are the breasts that nurtured you!” Many other artists expressed their own resonance with this image of the nurturing Mary, the Blessed Mother who continues to give life to those who are drawn to her Son. Rubens, in that richly complex 16th century Counter-Reformation period, depicted the tender moment between the Blessed Mother and the Infant Jesus in a marvelous engraving.
These are deeply evocative images that simultaneously draw us in and make us uncomfortable. Even as our minds and hearts swell with our own experiences of being held close and nurtured, perhaps we resist the feelings of vulnerability and intimacy. Perhaps the images hit a little too close to home for our liking.
It is interesting that we seem to prefer more staid images of the Blessed Mother, classic images of the young, composed, pristine maiden that exemplify to us what we feel is a more appropriate expression of holiness. In my experience we prefer our Mary the way we prefer our God.
Yet, the image of a bosom, the lap and chest, the breasts that nurture and protect remain a magnet for our imagination. St. Luke himself later draws on the rich tradition of “Abraham’s bosom” in his account of Lazarus and the rich man. After being neglected by the rich man for so long, Lazarus is embraced at last in hope and love. “The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham,” the New Revised Standard Version describes. The Greek text makes it clear: Lazarus was carried “into the bosom of Abraham” (16:22). He is, at last, in a space of rest and comfort, protection and love. He is embraced into the warmth of that sacred space.
There is a universal pull within us toward a space of hope and love. It is so universal that, when we don’t have it, we suffer deep within our hearts. Children need to be held—as does every human being throughout their life. In my own prayer life, I resonate much more with images of the Venus or Woman of Willendorf (c. 25,000 BCE) than I do with some “stick-figure” Mary that is brittle and easily breakable.
I am drawn to this image not because it looks like my grandmother—which it does!—but because, laying it alongside a meditation on the Blessed Mother, it speaks of the ample love of God. If this is an image of anything—and its 27,000 year history gives it enormous significance—it is an image that assures me that God’s love and presence is plentiful. God’s love overflows and will never run dry. I can imagine myself nestled in the arms of this love in times of sadness and pain as well as times of joy and peace. With this image in mind, I too can add my voice to the cry of praise in St. Luke’s Gospel: “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!”
Can you imagine yourself held by God in this way? Do you find yourself seeking a place of such nurture and comfort? Maybe such a meditation feels quire foreign to you—vulgar even. Maybe the intensity of the intimacy causes you to squeeze your eyebrows just a bit, clinch your jaw. It is an intense image, to be sure, yet can’t the deep drawing power of the image connect with the deep yearning in our own hearts? How do you imagine yourself being held by God? How do you long to held?
 Note David Gibson, “Mary Breastfeeding Jesus: Christmas’s Missing Icon.” Updated December 17, 2014. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/11/mary-breastfeeding-jesus_n_2274119.html