God Sucking a Nipple

August was world breastfeeding month, which meant that breastfeeding―and controversies surrounding feeding (especially in public) helped fill the slow, late-summer news cycles. But the stories have continued into the fall. Melbourne photographer Christopher Rimmer’s shots of African women nursing once again raised questions regarding Facebook’s censoring of breastfeeding photos as “obscene;” also the recent “nurse-in” in west Auckland once again drew attention to the question of breastfeeding in public.

Public breastfeeding has confronted me with a scandal―but not the scandal of seeing a bit of nipple (which really shouldn’t be scandalous but applauded―after all breastfeeding challenges the idea that a woman’s body is built for the sexual gratification of men by putting breasts to nutritive use. So I say, let women feed their babies in public and demand that the rest of the public grow-up and quit thinking of “boobies” as sex toys!). However, breastfeeding has confronted me with a very old scandal involving God and creation.

Have you ever watched a baby breastfeed, especially a newborn? Most learn very quickly what the breast is and what it is for, their little eyes and mouths opening wide in anticipation when brought to the breast to nurse. Once latched, it is not unusual for an infant to throw his (or her) little arms around the breast, clutching it, holding it, as if to say, “please don’t take it away!” Upon finishing, they come off the breast in a milk-drunk daze, relaxed, happy, wobbly. Given the opportunity, a newborn might unlatch and―rosebud lips slightly parted and eyes closed―rest its head on the breast as if it were a giant, warm pillow. In those early weeks of life, the breast is a baby’s entire universe.

At Christmas, Christians celebrate the Incarnation―that the God who spoke the entire universe into being, and (as Isaiah poetically puts it) who holds creation in the palm of his hand, illingly reduced himself to a baby whose entire world was Mary’s breast. It is one thing to think of God becoming Man―a man who could build furniture, survive in the desert, teach the scholars and the masses, give his life for others. It is quite another thing to think of God becoming an infant. Seriously imagine that a baby at the breast― oblivious to everything except the flow of milk and perhaps hidden under a receiving blanket (if the mother is self-conscious about feeding in public)―is the one who created the universe. This is not a Victorian sentimentalization of babies: it is downright frightening!  God is not only incredibly vulnerable, he is also pretty pathetic. Worst of all, God is ordinary. God, in the person of Jesus, has become exactly like every other human in history―his entire universe has become Mary’s breast.

As shocking as this image of God-become-baby is, it is also thrilling. YouTube videos of flash mobs performing Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” in shopping malls perhaps help us unravel the scandal of God-the-Son, Jesus, sucking away at Mary’s breast. Amid absolutely ordinary food-court fare and the stressful mundanity of the shopping mall, through the mouths of apparently ordinary mall-goers, comes Handel. It is shocking, incongruous, and…wonderful. The children eating their Hot-Dog-on-a-Stick or Sbarro’s Pizza are mesmerized by the extraordinary voices breaking into a plastic-knives-and-forks, mustard-and-ketchup-ringed-lips lunch. The fash-mob is effective because it is not what is expected: it is out of place and inappropriate to the shopping mall. It challenges our cultural sensibilities that say classical music is for the well-off and educated in the concert hall, not for the masses in the shopping mall.

In a way, the flash mob is a bit like God breastfeeding. Once we get past our intellectual snobbery that says it is demeaning for God to suck a nipple, we begin to see the arm-tingling reality that Christmas celebrates: into the stressful mundanity of history in the apparently ordinary form of a baby, comes God…and not just for those educated enough or affluent enough to appreciate him, but for the shopping, hot-dog and pizza-eating masses. It is a wonderful surprise, if we are willing to hear it.

Jessica Hughes

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14 responses to “God Sucking a Nipple

  1. This post is awesome, and the video brought a huge smile to my face. It just made me happy!! Thanks. Stephanie Edsall

  2. This is of course related to the collective outrage when Janet Jacksons breast was briefly exposed on prime time USA TV.
    Never mind that at the same time USA forces were involved in the Shock and Awe campaign against the people of Iraq – the coaition of the killing.

    At about the same time there was an outcry re a Parenting Magazine that featured a baby suckling on its mothers breast on the front cover. And which was displayed on news-stands all over the USA, including in Walmart stores

  3. I’ll comment Philip! While I think Handel is best served up with a shake and side of fries, I think breast feeding is one of the most banal yet over-inflated subject of modern times.

    The public doesn’t have to grow up where public breast feeding is concerned – individuals from every facet of life need to mature a little over the need to make a statement about every ridiculous thing we believe in. Or our insatiable desire to draw attention to ourselves no matter how much discomfort it brings to others.

    http://fullonredfrog.com/2010/02/dairy-wars/

      • Thank you both for your comments! I want to reiterate Philip’s observation that breast-feeding wasn’t really the primary point of the postin no way does this post develop or defend the significance of breast-feeding. The main point was the shocking and even offensive nature of the incarnation when Christians profess that the same God who spoke creation into existence humbled himself to the point of being an infant suckling at Mary’s breast. When we observe a baby engrossed in its mother’s breast, the amazing extent of God’s self-limitiation strikes us anew.

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  5. How about the thought of a bloodied half naked Mary laying there full of pain, full of relief, full of anticipation of what this bloodied, crying Child will be about. We look backwards knowing what Christ is all about. Joseph and Mary had a few prophecies, some Torah words and hope via the miracle conception.
    A child born in blood, naked and dependant on his mother, dies in blood, naked and dependant on the Father.

  6. So if you’re uncomfortable with a naked breast in the act of breastfeeding, then you must only think of breasts as sex toys?

    • Thank you for your comment, Gerald! That is what I’m suggesting…at least, that the reason we are uncomfortable with breasts (and not shoulders, knees, thighs, tummies, or men’s nipples) is because, as a culture, we treat breasts as part of sexual practice and discourse. Consequently, when breasts are not contextualized within a sex-act, there remains a tendency to feel awkward about them. In cultures where breasts are part of a woman’s pubic body, public breastfeeding is never taboo. All that said, the point of the post is about the way breastfeeding and an infant’s complete dependency on its mother brings us face to face with the scandal of the Incarnation–the scandal of the Creator becoming so utterly helpless and limited!

  7. Thanks for your speedy response Jessica. And I certainly sympathize, of course, that a woman’s breasts should not be associated only with sex. And, of course, also that our culture perversely over-sexualizes breasts and so much more. Im not sure, however, I buy such a strong either-or on this. Are you suggesting breasts are not also sexual? Or that in cultures where breasts are part of a women’s “public body” that they are not also seen as sexual?

    I appreciate that this is not the primary point you are trying to make–though it is a point you clearly want to make. But that GOd became human doesn’t simply for that reason mean a cultural convention is necessarily bad. God also would have had to go to the bathroom. How would you distinguish breasts, then, from other intimate parts of the body (not just shoulders and knees, etc) that are both sexual and functional in other ways?

    I think I am perhaps worried about invoking the Incarnation to make a point that does not necessarily follow from it.

    • I completely understand your concerns over invoking the Incarnation to make a point that does not follow from it! I don’t however, think that is what I’m doing. You are right, I am making a political/social point about breastfeeding in the opening section, one that was motivated by a spate of anti-breastfeeding events a few years ago (the post first appeared in 2010). But my comment that we need to get past seeing breast as sex-toys is a parenthetical cultural comment that is only relevant to the Incarnation insofar as the second image of Mary reminds us of the long tradition of Mary nursing Jesus. I tried (and perhaps failed) to keep the cultural moment that brought about the reflection separate from the theological mystery that nursing can raise.

  8. Well, the title of the post as well as your parenthetical comment are quite rhetorically charged with regard to the cultural moment–so its something you’ve got to own.

    I do get the primary point you are trying to make but from that point you make a not insubstantial incidental point that does not necessarily follow from your larger point and you accuse anyone uncomfortable with a naked breast as immature, sexist even possibly, since it can only mean such a person thinks of woman as a sexual object. But its also quite possible to be uncomfortable about it reflects a reasonable (yes, culturally conditioned, but still reasonable) modesty. Given the provocative nature of your point, I thought a response was appropriate.

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