Some of my best memories have taken place around a table. Birthday parties, holiday meals, dinners with friends and family at home or at a restaurant. Food is an essential part of our physical lives but sharing meals is an essential part of our emotional lives. As Catholics, we know that the need to share a meal is an implicit part of us because we were made to be in communion. From the beginning, God said that it was not good for man to be alone and put us into communion with each other. Jesus did not ignore this when He instituted the Eucharist, doing so during a shared meal. The central role of food, or more specifically, a meal, in community speaks to the necessity of having our physical, emotional, and spiritual needs cared for in tandem, not separated.
The Eucharist is, of course, “the source and summit of the Christian life” (Lumen Gentium 11) but all other meals share in bringing us into communion with one another. In fact, the Eucharist has many names that highlight this aspect. It is called “The Lord’s Supper, because its connection with the supper which the Lord took with his disciples on the eve of his Passion and because it anticipates the wedding feast of the Lamb in the heavenly Jerusalem” and “The Eucharistic assembly (synaxis), because the Eucharist is celebrated amid the assembly of the faithful, the visible expression of the Church (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1329). It is also called “Holy Communion, because by this sacrament we unite ourselves to Christ, who makes us sharers in his Body and Blood to form a single body. We also call it: the holy things (ta hagia; sancta)–– the first meaning of the phrase ‘communion of saints’ in the Apostles’ Creed” (CCC 1331). It is obvious then that sharing a meal is essential and central to the life of the Christian, and especially the Catholic, because of its biblical symbolism and because it is a tangible expression of the Christian call to service, love, and unity.
Pope Francis, affirming the tradition of the Church, understands this. On two occasions, while baptizing babies in the Sistine Chapel, he encouraged mothers to feed their babies as necessary. During the baptism in January 2015, he said, “You mothers give your children milk and even now, if they cry because they are hungry, breastfeed them, don’t worry.” Essentially, what Pope Francis was saying with this is that eating is an essential and communal act, whether done with a fork and knife or at the breast, and that there is no place too holy, no place off limits for carrying out this life-giving work. At these baptisms the next year, Pope Francis explicitly took it further, telling the mothers to go ahead and breastfeed “Just like the Virgin Mary nursed Jesus.”
In an article for Aleteia, Cerith Gardiner wrote, “‘Give food to those who are hungry’ applies to the babies at our breasts, too.” Babies do not have the self-control nor the autonomy to recognize their need and then wait for that need to be met. It must be taken care of now! Because of this same underdevelopment of self-control and lack of autonomy, a baby would also not tolerate any inconvenience to him in having this need met–– whether that be place, positioning, or maybe even a coverup. In a piece on the subject on my blog, I wrote that the use of a coverup is solely at the discretion of the mother for the comfort of the involved parties and the success of the breastfeeding session. During this meal, mother and baby are communing and presenting a living image of the Church (likewise, mothers who cannot breastfeed, like myself, still commune with their babies while bottle-feeding them and still present a living image of the Church). JoAnna Wahlund wrote, “Eating is not an act that is intended to be private or hidden from the world; Jesus showed us at the Last Supper, among other accounts, that eating in company of others is normal and natural. So it is with breastfeeding babies.” We are privileged to share meals with one another, whether around a table, in a public space, or in the sanctuary.
The sight of a breastfeeding mother and child, perhaps especially those who do so uncovered, should fill us with immense joy. Here we have an image of the Eucharist! A mother gives up her body to nourish her child as Christ gave up His Body to save and nourish us. We should not forget, too, that Christ was stripped of His clothes as He entered into the act of salvation, laid bare before us. A mother must also bare herself for the sake of her child. It is an immensely humbling part of these acts. As such, there is no inherent shame or guilt in the laying bare of oneself for another in either of these acts, and neither should any external shame be heaped upon either.
A breastfeeding mother is an image of the Eucharist and an image of the Church. Christ sent the Church out into the world to deliver the Good News; so breastfeeding mothers are in the world. We must rejoice when we see images of our Church and of our God out in the world, especially in the mundane and the routine places and incidences. As Christ gave Mother Church a place of prominence in our relationship with Him, we should welcome, encourage, and support breastfeeding mothers, giving them a place of prominence among us. How sad that some would treat statues and sacred art with more respect and dignity than they would treat an unrepeatable and irreplaceable person made in the image and likeness of God. How small God must be to these people. Opening our hearts and minds to the breastfeeding mother and child opens us up to a whole new understanding of the Church as mother and of the Eucharist as our nourishment and as the core of our Faith. When we are open to the breastfeeding mother, we can see further how intricately God has woven His image and likeness into the very framework of creation and into us. What a beautiful gift He has given us in each other! Do not shun nor shove into a back room the image of the Eucharist and microcosm of the Church we see in the breastfeeding mother. A child sucks at his mother’s breasts and so we, as children of the Church, suck at the Church’s breasts, which are the sacraments.
In a general audience, Pope Francis spoke of the Church as mother: “Dear friends, this is the Church…a mother who has the good of her children at heart and who is able to give her life for them. We must not forget, however, that the Church is…all of us!…So often in our life we do not bear witness of this motherhood of the Church, of this maternal courage of the Church! So often we are cowards! Let us then entrust ourselves to Mary, that She as mother of our firstborn brother, Jesus, may teach us to have the same maternal spirit towards our brothers and sisters, with the sincere capacity to welcome, to forgive, to give strength, and to instill trust and hope. This is what a mother does.” Let us learn of true maternal care through the image of the Church and the Eucharist in the breastfeeding mother. As Mary nursed the cornerstone of the Church, Jesus, so mothers nurse the Church’s future. How we participate in and interact with the nurslings of the future is paramount.