January 1 is the Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, a holy day of obligation.
Today, we are quite used to the title: “Mother of God.” However, in the church during the 5th century, a great controversy arose over it. The results show just how important this title is.
On one side was Proclus, who publicly praised Mary as Theotokos (a Greek word meaning “God-bearer”) in the Cathedral of Constantinople in 428; on the other was Nestorius, who objected to the title’s implications that God needed a human birth requiring bodily pregnancy.
The basis of Proclus’ argument was that, if we were to deny Mary the title of the “mother of God-made-Man,” then we also denied that Jesus was truly God and truly human. Using the title “Theotokos” for Mary safeguarded our belief in the true divinity of Christ and the unity of the two natures in his person. The basic argument on Nestorius’ side was that it was disrespectful of Jesus, as the Son of God, to even imply that he had ever been a helpless human infant in need of food or a new diaper, much less of a human mother to carry him in her womb and nurse him with her body.
The controversy led to the calling of a general council, the Council of Ephesus, in 431. The council denounced Nestorius and confirmed Mary as the Theotokos, a title she has retained unchallenged ever since. St. John Paul II in his encyclical “Redemptoris Mater (Mother of the Redeemer),” said of that 5th century decision: “The dogma of the divine motherhood of Mary was … like a seal upon the dogma of the Incarnation, in which the Word truly assumes human nature into the unity of his person, without canceling out that nature.”
Calling Mary the Mother of God also deepens our understanding of Jesus Christ. It also draws us closer to him because his humanity — with all its frailty and weaknesses — was identical to ours.
A lesser-known feast of Mary is coming up on Jan. 12, celebrated in the Orthodox churches of the East. It also reminds us of Jesus’ humanity. This feast honors an icon of Mary known as the “Icon of the Virgin Galaktotrophousa” (a word meaning “the Milk-Giver”). This icon shows the Mother of God breast-feeding Christ. The image, which dates to the 6th century, is kept at Hilandar Monastery, a Serbian Orthodox monastery on Mount Athos in Greece.
While the Milk-Giver icon is not well known in the West, a sacred spot in Bethlehem that dates to at least the 4th century may be a bit more familiar.
There, not far from Manger Square, is a small shrine maintained by the Franciscans and called the “Milk Grotto.” Tradition has is that, when Mary and Joseph were beginning their flight to Egypt, Mary rested there to nurse the infant Jesus. A drop of her milk spilled in the grotto and it made the stone permanently white.
Even today, most caves and grottoes around Bethlehem are composed of red or brown stone, but the Milk Grotto stone is white limestone. Officially called “Margharet Sitti Mariam,” or “Magharet Al-Saayideh” in Arabic (“Grotto of the Lady Mary”), the site is visited by both Christians and Muslims. It is also where couples who struggle with infertility come.
Franciscan Br. Lawrence Bode has served at the grotto since 1995. Last December, he told Religious News Service (RNS): that he estimates that “in the past dozen years, at least 3,000 babies have been born to mothers who prayed in the grotto.”
The birth of these children is credited both to prayer and to “Milk Grotto powder,” pulverized stone from the grotto’s walls. A native of New York, Br. Lawrence offers the powder packets to couples or women who visit, along with a prayer. (He cannot respond to letters or send the powder to anyone because the Franciscans lack the resources for such mailings.) Br. Lawrence has seven photo albums filled with pictures and testimonials from parents and told RNS that tens of thousands of people visit the little shrine each year.
Above the entrance to the Milk Grotto is an image of Mary and Jesus that is similar to a famous statue that has been in the United States since the 17th century: Nuestra Señora de La Leche y Buen Parto (Our Lady of the Milk and Good Delivery). The original image dated to the late 16th century in Madrid. The legend says that the Spanish image was rescued and placed in the home of a married couple. The wife was pregnant but was expected to die. However, their prayers to Our Lady resulted in a happy delivery.
(Throughout history, various images of the nursing Virgin Mother have existed. In Latin, they are collectively known as Maria Lactans.)
Made aware of the miracle, King Philip II of Spain set up a shrine to Mary as a nursing mother. A couple of decades later, around 1620, a replica of the Spanish statue was brought to the New World and placed in the newly founded mission of Nombre de Dios (Name of God) in St. Augustine, Fl. The settlement and mission had been founded on Sept. 8, 1565, and the shrine became the first dedicated to the Blessed Mother in what later became the United States.
The original shrine was destroyed several times since 1620. The present shrine was built in 1915. Thousands, offering various petitions, visit there each year. Thousands more send letters of petition.
Contemplating the Virgin Mary as a nursing mother with her son at her breast offers us both support in our own human weakness and presents us with a divine mystery, hidden in an everyday event. For each of us the message is different, but as St. Ephrem the Syrian wrote in one of his “Hymns on the Nativity” in the 4th century, “When he sucked the milk of Mary, he was suckling all with life. While he was lying on his mother’s bosom, in his bosom were all creatures lying.”
Sources: newadvent.org; our.lady.of.la.leche.tripod.com; Nombre de Dios at missionandshrine.org; catholicculture.org; piercedhearts.org; Bethlehem.custodia.org; religionnews.com; ncregister.com; iconreader.wordpress.com; marianmessenger.ph.