In the delightful movie, Scrooge (1970), a musical 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 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 drinks and becomes enamored with the enticing, delicious elixir, and then gets hammered while pleading, as Oliver Twist did with his porridge, 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 mother’s 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 well into the 1970’s, that breast feeding wasn’t really necessary. That any nipple, even a plastic one, would do. So, the modern world of post-natal bliss came to be found from a bottle not from a breast. How chic. How progressive. How like us to just take another detour to break the inconvenient bond between mother and child through the marvelous, almost unthinking acceptance of a can of formula vis-á-vis the real McCoy.
But a mother’s instinct is not to be trifled with. Science can sometimes be trumped by innate reasoning. As it so happened, the popular march toward natural childbirth back in the 1980’s dovetailed with the wholesome and age-old practice of breast feeding. Mother’s milk was now back in vogue 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 over joyed 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. The Magi entered into “a house.” Hence, it’s surmised by some, including accredited astrologers and historians, the Holy Family had left the stable and took abode in a house nearby.
And this is where a beautiful story begins to unfold.
This is supposition on my part, of course, but just south of Bethlehem, but within Bethlehem proper, Joseph may have led his wife and infant son to “a house,” possibly some sort of living arrangement chiseled and hewn from rock. Perhaps carved from the indigenous limestone prevalent in that part of Judea. It’s not a far fetched supposition. There are houses and churches there still today sculpted into the landscape of the hills and mountains.
Perhaps Joseph was led there on his journey by a kind soul he met along the way. Maybe it was an abandoned house and could be used by travelers searching for warmth and protection. In any event, here Joseph may have stopped in his long journey back to Nazareth.
Why? Possibly a storm was threatening or some other urgency. Maybe because the donkey had picked up a stone in his hoof and needed time to heal. Perhaps it was for another reason.
And why not? After all, the decree from the purple-robed 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.
Yet maybe, in light of all this, he just needed to sit awhile and contemplate fully the trust the Lord had placed upon his strong shoulders. Given the historic implications, which must have occurred to him and the frightful weight of such an undertaking, most men would have second thoughts; perhaps plan a self-indulgent escape, shirk responsibility, take cover and hide as so many men do in our day.
Not this man.
Duty coursed through his princely veins as deep as the river Jordan. Yet, like all men, he needed guidance. There was no other choice then but to stop on his travels and do something men hesitate to do: ask for directions.
How did he pray? Well, simply, no elaborate formal recitations or formulas here, but in humility and with sincere sweat beading on an overtaxed brow. Joseph knew the magnitude of the moment. He knew his place in it. Moreover, 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 explorers alit from their beasts of burden and politely requested and 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, 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, as it was with Mary and Joseph, 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 gold, frankincense, and myrrh? The answer came through a dream. An angle 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 prayers 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 flee Judea. Joseph would have left no footprint of his family’s presence at this “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 Joseph couldn’t control. Something completely out of his power to manage or even anticipate: Jesus was hungry. He needed nourishment. He needed sustenance. And this could only be procured from His mother. He required milk. So, His mother began to feed him.
Still, Joseph was in a hurry. Time was short and the family desperately needed to move, and move now. Herod’s troops were in proximity and were scouring the countryside in and near Bethlehem determined to find and destroy the newly proclaimed king. The warning of the angel reverberated in Joseph’s ears, the visit of the Magi may have confirmed this because they had a dream warning them not to return to King Herod.
Joseph, perhaps, asked Mary to delay the feeding of the infant. Couldn’t she do this on the road? Surely she could. Because now was the time to escape and escape quickly before inevitable disaster would most certainly strike and kill the God-child.
Yes. She agreed. She could feed her son as they ventured down the road. Why not? Joseph would make certain 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 small edifice, the whole of the “house” which had been shadowed and gray turned into a creamy color of milky-white. Neither Joseph nor Mary noticed. They were in too much of a hurry to escape the egotistical wrath of the tyrant Herod and his soldiers who were butchering male children with impunity. And, escape they did. Just in time.
But, someone else must have noticed the change to the “house.” It could be that there was an eyewitness. The visit of the Magi would certainly have attracted attention of neighbors or wayfarers nearby. 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 atop of the stone structure and is dated back to 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 it for yourself. You can also ask for some “milk dust,” or the scrapings of the limestone flooring. 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 Sénora de la Leche captivated its faithful. It was spread to the New World by the conquistadors, explorers and missionaries. In fact, if you’re a snowbird and travelling south this winter, stop by St. Augustine, in Florida. There’s a beautiful shrine there dedicated to Sénora de la Leche y Buen Parto (Our Lady of the Milk and Happy Delivery).
For many souls, the “milk of human kindness” has been realized in a way Charles Dickens never thought possible. In this Christmas season, especially on the Feast of the Epiphany, we should recall the events depicted in Matthew’s gospel and take comfort in the loving, sweet nurturing power of mothers everywhere.