Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of late medieval and Renaissance paintings and sculptures depict the Virgin Mary with one breast exposed as she is nursing the infant Christ. The origins of the image are disputed, but whatever its origins, depictions of the lactating Virgin acquired new meaning and new urgency in mid-14th-century Tuscany. In communities under siege from plague, wars and malnutrition, the Virgin’s breast was a symbol of God’s loving provision of life, the nourishment and care that sustain life, and the salvation that promises eternal life.
Two years after Anglican and Roman Catholic priests and theologians said they had reached a common understanding on the Virgin Mary, there’s still something about the Catholic doctrine of Mary that doesn’t sit right with some Anglicans.
Ghost Ranch, a Presbyterian haven in New Mexico, in 1968 welcomed its first Catholic speaker, Father Anthony Wilhelm, with whom I was to hold a public conversation. Tony began his days by saying mass in an upper room, before a congregation of Hispanic employees. Couldn’t some of the Protestant Ranch-folk drop in some day? he asked.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is not actually introduced to Roman Catholic people in Latin America because only Marian doctrines are taught to them. That is the main reason that the Protestant church is so liberating to former Catholics—the gospel of Jesus Christ brings freedom from the mistaken idea that we can come to God only through “la Virgen.”
Several years ago, early in Advent, I received an interesting note from the sixth-graders in the church school. “Dear Mr. Buchanan: We have some questions about Christmas. 1) Did the star stand still? 2) Were the shepherds and wise men real? 3) How was Jesus born if his parents didn’t have sexual intercourse? Please meet us next Sunday and tell us the answers.”