Still a little jet-lagged on our first day in Albuquerque, we chose to take it easy and wandered over to the Old Town section. Our leisurely walk brought us to the San Felipe de Neri Church (1706). This isn’t the story of a three-hundred year old church, though the nearby gift shop in the attached convent is where it begins.
Like good tourists, after visiting the historic church, we went into the gift shop. It was here that I came across a sketch. I was entranced by this print of the original by New Mexico artist Diego Gabriel Gonzales. I would look at the sketch, wander away to look at other things, and then return to look at it some more. This image of Mary nursing her infant son, Jesus, was speaking to me. I finally bought a copy and it now hangs in my home office.
By the standards of much of the homogenized, Anglo-American culture, this image is shocking. In our culture women’s breasts have been sexualized and women have been objectified to titillate. The Greek ideas of the body as bad and the spiritual as good, and the early church’s endorsement of it, are so embedded in our culture that we cannot imagine the Divine Jesus as nursing from his mother’s breast. This must be sacrilege! Hasn’t the Church pronounced the physical as sinful? This underlying attitude about human sexuality and the human body in general in American culture is juxtaposed against a profane portrayal of women and increasingly men as physical vessels only.
Yet, it is not what this image implies about human sexuality that drew me to it in the Sisters of Charity gift shop. What draws me to this sketch is what it says about who Jesus was and who we are as the Imago Dei (image of God). Of course, Mary must’ve nursed Jesus. Plastic baby bottles and latex nipples filled with formula based on cow’s milk or soy did not yet exist. Jesus’ mother provided the nourishment if mother’s milk. She used her body to provide a necessity of life to the Galilean who became the One who would be resurrected and worshiped two-thousand years later.
Of course, Mary nursed Jesus because Jesus was not just fully divine, he was fully human. Like Jesus, we are each fully human. Similar to Jesus we are also fully spiritual animals created in the Image of God. Sadly, we have allowed the early Greeks and the early church to surgically remove the spiritual from the physical. The body has been severed from the spirit (the divine in each of us). The result of denying our physicality has been societies as diverse as the repressive, self-loathing Puritans and our physically-idolatrous contemporary American society.
Created in the Image of God, my body is integral to who I am no less than my spirituality is integral to whole of my being. Human physicality and spirituality are intertwined just as Jesus’ humanity and divinity were intertwined. The importance of touch to the psychological and emotional/spiritual health of children and adults is well-documented. To survive into adulthood, Jesus the fully human infant needed nourishment and physical touch provided by Mary as he ate from her breast. You and I needed the touch of loving adults and nourishment to survive to adulthood. Just as Mary Magdalene touched the adult Jesus with oil, we too continue to need physical touch to thrive spiritually, emotionally, psychologically, and physically as adults.
I wonder, no, I suspect that if humanity ceased denying our Imago Dei of physicality and spirituality, embraced ourselves as fully physical/fully spiritual beings, the world would begin to be transformed. When we fully embrace the Image of God in ourselves and others, the Kingdom of God will not be far off.