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Nursing Mothers in the Preaching Fathers

In early May I had the great pleasure of appearing on Greg and Lisa Popcak’s radio show, Heart, Mind and Strength. The topic of our discussion was the Church Fathers’ use of breastfeeding imagery. The Popcaks kindly gave me permission to post the audio of my short segment, which I’ve done right here (choose “Download the MP3”).

My wife, Terri, is a nursing mother of six, and she leads a breastfeeding support group. It was she who first alerted me to the patristic possibilities, back in 1993, when she wrote about the saints and nursing motherhood. Some years later, in New Covenant magazine, Terri published “Milk and Mystery,” an article about breastfeeding and Christian life. More recently, she and I have co-authored a couple of studies of nursing imagery in the Fathers, and I hope both will be available in print by year’s end.

Breastfeeding was a favorite metaphor of many Church Fathers, but especially Clement of Alexandria, Augustine, and Ephrem. They spoke of mother’s milk as a symbol of God’s grace, of His providence, of the sacraments, and even of the Holy Spirit. It’s a metaphor rarely used in modern preaching, at least in the United States, because breastfeeding, once a necessity, is now a rarity — and the female breast is treated almost exclusively as a sex object.

It was not so, of course, in the time of the Fathers. I was thrilled this week to find, posted on a Russian Christian website, a most fascinating study of the subject, “God’s Milk: An Orthodox Confession of the Eucharist.” The article — by Edward Engelbrecht, a Lutheran pastor and senior editor with Concordia Publishing House — first appeared in the Journal of Early Christian Studies in 1999. Here’s the summary:

The Odes of Solomon and early orthodox Christianity compared a believer’s reception of the body and blood of Christ in the eucharist to a child suckling at its mother’s breast. This appears to have been connected with the widespread use of a cup of milk and honey in the baptismal eucharist, a visual aid to explain the Lord’s nurturing presence in the sacrament. The milk analogy did not stem from symbolic uses of milk in pre-Christian religions or Gnosticism but from general beliefs about physiology coupled with Christian sacramental theology. The feminine characteristics of the milk analogy had no significant effect on orthodox beliefs about the Godhead nor did they cause the analogy to fall out of favor at a later date. Instead, as liturgical use of the cup of milk began to disappear, so did the milk analogy.

It’s a profound, well-written, and accessible study, well worth your time. It’ll nourish your prayer ever afterward.

2 thoughts on “Nursing Mothers in the Preaching Fathers

  1. It’s a metaphor rarely used in modern preaching, at least in the United States, because breastfeeding, once a necessity, is now a rarity…

    Just had to toss this in … I don’t sense breastfeeding as a rarity. It seems like every new mother I know breast-feeds. Maybe it’s that I’m in a conservative church, traditionalist family, or that I live in the Midwest, but it just doesn’t seem rare.

    That said, this of course is an interesting Post to ponder.

  2. For a gallery of images of Mary nursing, see this page Mary as Nursing Mother, from the Fish Eaters: The Whys and Hows of Traditional Catholicism website.

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