In the delightful movie, Scrooge (1970), a musical screen adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, starring Albert Finney, there’s a scene where the Ghost of Christmas Present gets the decrepit, miserly-meanie protagonist-antagonist drunk. The second spirit, or rather the third if you count Jacob Marley, of what would be four apparitions which appeared on that fateful, fictitious evening and morning, challenges the old, penny-pinching tyrant to drink, generously, from a cup brimming with “the milk of human kindness.”
Scrooge hesitates. After all, nothing is really for free in his world. There must be some hidden cost – even for a cup of milk freely given. Scrooge becomes enamored and then gets hammered downing the delicious brew and pleads, just like Oliver Twist did, for “some more.”
Both Ebenezer and Oliver shared a miserable start in life. They were both tragically deprived of the true “milk of human kindness.” They were motherless. They yearned for the kind, supple embrace of a mother’s arms and to drink deeply from the warm wells of their mothers’ nurturing breasts.
As infants, we are all divinely programmed to suckle and slurp our mothers’ milk. Nothing is more natural. Nothing is quite as good for us, despite the pediatric nonsense the baby experts foisted upon the expectant mothers of the baby boomer generation, actually as late as the seventies, that breast feeding wasn’t really necessary. That any nipple would do. So, the modern world of post-natal bliss came from a bottle not from a breast. How chic. How progressive. How like us to just take another detour to break the inconvenient bond of mother and child through the marvelous, almost unthinking acceptance of a can of formula vis-à-vis the real thing. And whose formula was it anyway?
But, a mother’s instinct is not to be trifled with. Science can sometimes be trumped by innate reasoning. As it so happened, the march toward natural childbirth (I remember taking Lamaze classes with my wife back in the eighties) dovetailed with the wholesome and age-old practice of breast feeding. Mother’s milk was back by popular demand and so was common sense. This was, and is today, beneficial for both mother and child.
And, so it was for the Madonna and the Christ child, too.
You, of course, remember the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, when, after the Magi had visited with King Herod, they reacquired their celestial search:
“They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage” (Mt 2:10-11).
Please note the Magi didn’t enter into a stable where there would be a manger and a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes as did the shepherds. They entered into a “house.” Hence, it is surmised by some, the Holy Family had already left Bethlehem.
And this is where a beautiful story begins.
Just south of Bethlehem, Joseph led his wife and infant son to a “house,” possibly some sort of abode etched from rock – the indigenous limestone found in that part of Judea. Here, Joseph stopped before their trek back to Nazareth really began. Maybe it was because of some sudden urgency, let’s say a storm, or perhaps because the donkey had picked up a stone in his hoof and needed time to heal. Perhaps it was for another reason
After all, the decree from the purple-clothed Augustus had been satisfied. The census had been taken in the City of David. Now was the time for Joseph to pay attention to the great and grave responsibility he had pledged to God he would fulfill. He was, no doubt, the “faithful guardian,” the “protector of virgins.” But, maybe even he needed to sit awhile and contemplate fully the trust the Lord God had placed on his strong square shoulders. Given the historic implications, the frightful weight of such an undertaking, most men would have second thoughts, perhaps plan a self-indulgent flight, shirk responsibility, take cover and hide (sounds familiar doesn’t it?).
Not this man. Duty coursed through his veins as deep as a river. Yet, he was just a man. And men need guidance. There really was no other choice then but to stop and do something men hesitate to do: ask for directions.
How did he pray? Well, simply, no formulas here. Humbly, and with sincere sweat beading on an overtaxed brow. Joseph knew the magnitude of the moment. He knew his place in it, and more importantly, he recognized Mary’s place in the sacred unveiling of God’s plan for the coming of the Messiah. The curtain between heaven and earth was suddenly parted. And then there was the baby.
That very day or sometime soon after, a caravan arrived from the east. Perhaps it was in the evening or early in the morning. Three, obviously wealthy, or at least well-to-do explorers alit from their beasts of burden and politely requested an audience with the king. Did this surprise Joseph and Mary? Did the visit of the shepherds at the stable before they left Bethlehem shock them?
No. Both husband and wife knew, as we should now, that there is no such thing called coincidence. Especially when you are wholeheartedly following the will of God and have already surrendered your heart to His justice and mercy. This surrender is not capitulation it is the re-gifting of free will and it is wonderful.
After the Magi left the “house,” Joseph had some new things to consider. The gifts the travelers left were of enormous value. But, what should he do with the gold, frankincense, and myrrh? The answer came through a dream. An angel appeared to Joseph:
“Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you. Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him” (Mt 2:13).
Joseph, not one to panic, took the answer to his prayer for directions literally and began immediately to embark on an unforgettable journey to a land his forefathers fled centuries before following the staff of Moses.
Quickly, preparations were made to leave Judea. Joseph would have left no footprint of his family’s presence at the “house.” He believed and he obeyed the message given him by the angel in his dream. Nothing, this side of heaven or hell, would prevent him from fulfilling his mission to get his family to safety.
But, there was something that Joseph couldn’t control. Something completely out of his power to manage or even to anticipate. Jesus was hungry. He needn’t nourishment. He needed sustenance. And this could only be procured from His mother. He required milk.
They were in a hurry. The dream Joseph had was, certainly, no joke. Herod’s troops were scouring the areas in and near Bethlehem, determined to seek and destroy the newly proclaimed King of the Jews. Joseph, perhaps, asked Mary to delay the feeding. Couldn’t she do this on the road? Surely, she could. Now was the time to move and to move quickly.
She agreed. Of course she could feed her son as they travelled down the road. Why not? Joseph would make sure the passage would be gentle enough that she would be able to breastfeed her child.
Mary stood and removed her breast from the hungry Christ child’s lips. As she did so, a few drops of her precious milk squirted down onto the limestone floor. Suddenly, the entire edifice, the whole of the “house,” which had been dark and gray turned into a creamy color of milky-white. Neither Joseph nor Mary noticed. They would have been in too much of a hurry to escape the egotistical wrath of Herod and his soldiers as they butchered male children with impunity.
But, someone else must have noticed. It could be that someone else was an eye witness. The visit from the Magi would certainly have attracted attention. In any event, we know today that devotion to Our Lady under the title Our Lady of the Milk began fairly early. A church was built on top of the cave or grotto. Historically, the church’s construction can be traced back as far as the fourth century.
Our Lady of the Milk is venerated by both Christians and Muslims. If you make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land you can worship there and see the grotto. You can also ask for some “milk dust.” Many, many miracles are directly attributed to the consumption of the limestone dust and the devotional prayer.
It wasn’t long before the story of the Lady of the Milk spanned across Europe. Spain was enamored with the tale and devotion to “Nuestra Señora de la Leche” spread to the New World by conquistadors, explorers, and missionaries. In fact, if you’re a snowbird and travelling south this winter, stop at St. Augustine, in Florida. There’s a beautiful shrine there dedicated to Señora de la Leche y Buen Parto (Our Lady of the Milk and Happy Delivery). Many miracles are also claimed to have taken place here, especially, as you can surmise, by women having difficulty conceiving a child or those experiencing a troubled pregnancy, even newborns with medical problems and/or disabilities.
Don’t be a humbug. This Advent and Christmas season take advantage of the graces bestowed upon us by Our Lady under this special but obscure title. She is there waiting in the grotto ready to nurture us with her mother’s milk. Sure, it’s kindness itself.