The Reverend Mark Birch Minor Canon and Sacrist
Sunday, 6th August 2017 at 11.15 AM
St Bernard of Clairvaux, architect of the Cistercian order, a rigorous form of Benedictinism which would never have done here in Westminster, was well-known for his devotion not just to Christ but also to Christ’s Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary.
There is a painting in the Prado in Milan, by Alonso Cano, depicting the apotheosis of his devotion, when the supplicant Bernard, kneeling before a statue of the Virgin and Child, prayed that Mary might (and I quote) ‘show herself to be a mother’. The artist has traced a fine, curving jet, of milk, emanating, presumably with some force, from Mary’s right breast, landing with exquisite aim upon the parched lips of the Saint.
If, like me, you are inclined to shudder at the very thought, we should bear in mind that images of the lactating Virgin were not uncommon in medieval times, although the recipient was more normally, and more appropriately, the Christ-child. The significance of this image, to the Medieval mind, related to the very idea of incarnation. Christ’s need of his mother’s milk reflects his full humanity. Indeed, the image of the lactating Virgin is considered part of the mystery by which the Word is made flesh; part of the process whereby the second person of the Trinity receives his humanity from Mary, not just at conception, but throughout gestation, birth and suckling. Milk was, not unreasonably, understood to be a refined kind of blood, and blood a refined essence of life itself. So Mary is quite literally, and visibly, giving Christ life, her life. He, as divine, receives his fully-human life from her.
For St Bernard, who presumably had his own mother from whom to receive his life, taking milk from the Virgin looks a bit greedy, and may be hard for us to make sense of spiritually; for while Mary, like any mother, gives her life for the sake of her child, it is Christ, rather than Mary, who gives his life for the sake of us all (his mother, and St Bernard, included). This is, after all, the mystery we celebrate in every Eucharist, where we are sustained, through bread and wine, with Christ’s own life, by his body and blood.
Being fed in the Eucharist is fundamental to the practice of our faith because feeding is fundamental to being human. Feeding, feasting is a celebration of life because there is no life without it. For all our autonomous powers of body and mind, we are fundamentally dependent creatures—dependent, initially, upon our mothers and what their bodies provide for us, and then utterly dependent upon all those processes, agricultural, commercial and culinary, by which food is afforded to us. Food is life.
So turning to today’s readings:
What better vision could the prophet Isaiah offer to a people longing for the restoration of their national life than a vision of abundant food and drink?
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price (says the Lord God)
…Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
I’ll bet those exiles salivated at the thought, as, I suspect, would the exiled refugees of Syria or Iraq or Sudan today.
The psalmist takes up the theme of our dependence, not just on food, but on the God who makes food possible, in words well-suited and often used at Grace before meals:
The eyes of all wait upon you, O Lord,
and you give them their food in due season.
You open wide your hand
and fill all things living with plenty.
And in the Gospel, Jesus feeds the multitude in the wilderness, reminding them of the Manna their ancestor’s received through Moses, and pointing us forwards to the Last Supper, when he would again take bread, give thanks, break and distribute it, before embarking on his Passion and Crucifixion.
The apparently odd-one-out among these readings is the epistle of St Paul, full of anguish and sorrow for his own people and their failure to embrace the Good News in the way that the Gentiles appeared to be doing. But here, perhaps, is another aspect of feeding. There must be a desire, a will, a degree of consent, on the part of the one who feeds, even a baby at the breast. Force-feeding is a truly horrifying business, and always feels like violence is being done against the recipient, even if they are terribly ill.
Joyful feeding is always voluntary feeding, and this is what God hopes for and makes possible, without any hint of coercion. Those of us who, like St Paul, feel anguish for our fellow citizens who seem to have abandoned their spiritual birth-right, who leave Churches empty on Sunday in preference for a lie-in, or sport or shopping, we may wish that God was in the business of coercion, but I suspect we may remain disappointed.
God gives us real freedom, even in our absolute dependency, and invites our free, joyous and voluntary acknowledgement of that dependency, expressed most vividly as we come freely to the altar with empty hands, assured that we will be fed, not with an empty token, but with bread and wine that are charged with the very life of Christ.
By feeding us with his own life in the Eucharist, Christ’s compassion for us is enacted and displayed. Feeding is perhaps the fundamental act of compassion. The gospel tells us that Jesus had compassion for the crowd who followed him, and when the disciples wanted to send them away to find food, he tells them ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ And while Jesus takes the loaves and the fish, blesses and breaks them, he then gives them to the disciples to distribute them. This miracle is a lesson, for the disciples, in compassion. They will be sent out to feed Christ’s lambs, to extend his compassion to the ends of the earth, and we who are fed by Christ in the sacraments are sent out in like manner, as the eyes, hands and feet by which his compassion radiates out. We who are fed are sent out to feed a hungry world.
We are fed by Christ with his own life—in a manner that finds its closest analogy in a Mother feeding an infant. Some Medieval writers had no problem in describing Christ as our Mother. And, in retrospect, I think I may have been a bit unfair to St Bernard. Perhaps his bizarre and slightly queasy vision of being fed by the Blessed Virgin Mary, may yet have some spiritual rationale. After all, we see, in Christ, God himself in human, physical dependency upon his mother and her compassion. That kind of dependency can be frightening for us, which may be the root of our queasiness, yet we are called to acknowledge no less a dependency upon God. St Bernard places himself alongside the infant Christ in his dependency on his mother, and perhaps finds there reassurance both in the human compassion shown by Mary, and the divine compassion in Christ, who, alongside him, shares his human neediness. The Saint is caught up in the mystery of the Incarnation, and the hope that the One who depended entirely on his Mother can in turn be utterly depended upon to feed us with the gift of his own glorious and indestructible life.