“And Mary said, ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it unto me according to thy word.’ And the angel departed from her.” —Luke 1:38, KJV
In the month of December, we celebrate the birth of the Christ child, the incarnate Son of God. And as is proper in celebrating a birth, some of our focus is on the child’s mother, whose gracious sharing of her body for nine months and beyond—and her athletic accomplishment of labor and delivery—are necessary for the successful birth of a newborn.
The birth of the Incarnate One, Christ Jesus, the Son of God, was and is an extraordinary demonstration of the compassion of God: willingness to take on human flesh, human life, human suffering, that all of humanity might share in the eternal life of God.
But the compassion demonstrated by the birth of Christ was not just the compassion of Christ alone. Mary, Christ’s mother, also demonstrated extraordinary compassion, risking her health, life, and reputation to bear the Son of God into the world.
The Hebrew language recognizes this extraordinary compassion not just of Mary, but of all mothers. In an association that we miss in English translation, one of the Hebrew words for compassion is rechemim, directly derived from rechem, the Hebrew word for “womb.”
Bearing a child in one’s womb, one’s inner parts, is an extraordinary act of compassion. Even when a child is desired, anticipated, loved, and welcomed, nine months of pregnancy is no mere inconvenience. The list of potential health complications associated with pregnancy, many of them permanent, is long and terrifying: gestational diabetes, anemia, depression, preeclampsia, hyperemesis gravidarum, problems with hip and other joints, fluid retention, and more. And yet many an expectant mother graciously accepts the risks and suffering her pregnancy may bring in light of the joy that she anticipates with the birth of her child.
Even in English, the word “compassion” points to a willingness to suffer on others’ behalf. The Latin com plus the root word passio literally means “to suffer with.” The compassion of God lies in God’s willingness to suffer with and for us; the compassion of Mary in her willingness to suffer to bring forth the Christ child.
For many mothers, the gracious sharing of her body to give life to her child does not end with the birth, as she feeds her infant from her own breasts. Again, willingness to breastfeed a child involves a willingness to suffer, as complications such as mastitis and even the pain of being bitten are not uncommon. Here again, the Hebrew language connects this gracious maternal self-giving with the compassionate providence of God.
El Shaddai as a name or title for God appears 48 times in the Hebrew scriptures and appears to be derived from the root word shad, the Hebrew word for “breast.” El Shaddai is often translated “God Almighty” in English, but perhaps it might be better translated “The Nurturing One” or “The One Who Sustains Our Life,” or simply, “Sustainer.” The mightiness of God lies not in supernatural, cosmic, muscular power, but in the fact that our lives are sustained moment by moment and day by day through God’s nurturing compassion.
There is a place in the Holy Land that honors the self-giving compassion of Mary in breastfeeding the infant Jesus. In Bethlehem, on the West Bank of the Palestinian Territories, is a Roman Catholic shrine called the Chapel of the Milk Grotto. According to tradition, this site was a cave where Mary and Joseph stopped on their flight into Egypt from the murderous King Herod, in order that Mary might feed the baby. As she was doing so, a drop of her milk fell to the ground and, legend has it, turned the floor of the cave white. The chapel has become a pilgrimage site, especially dear to the hearts of infertile couples, expectant and nursing mothers both Christian and Muslim, and those who come to pray for peace in the name of the Prince of Peace.
The men and women of ancient Israel and Judah saw in expectant and nursing mothers an image of Almighty God, the One whose gracious self-giving sustains the life of each individual and of the people as a whole. The wombs and breasts of human women, employed to nurture new life, were related to the ancient Israelite understanding of God, in whose image both female and male persons are made.
How might our understanding of God, and of compassion, be challenged and even transformed by reclaiming the pregnant womb and the milk-swollen breast as ways of imagining God’s compassion? How might we view and support human mothers differently if we truly saw in them the image of our compassionate God? How might we, in our North American and global contexts, make pilgrimage to the Chapel of the Milk Grotto in our imaginations to pray for new and expecting parents, healthy infants, and the peace of the world into which they are born?
Perhaps seeing God as the Nurturing Compassionate One, and all humans, male and female, as made in the image of God, might lead us toward an understanding of self-giving nurture and compassion as a call for all Christians, male and female. Perhaps sharing the gender of Christ and the apostles should be considered no more a mark of fitness for set-apart ministry than dwelling in bodies capable of nurture as a mirror of God’s compassion.
Even more importantly, seeing the compassion of God imaged in the gracious self-giving of pregnant and nursing mothers should lead us toward a radical new understanding of compassion itself. If compassion means “to suffer with,” perhaps it is not enough to simply give of our excess to those in need and move on. We see this in the life of Mary, and in the life of our own Evelyn Trostle.
Evelyn Trostle served as a Brethren relief worker in the city of Marash during the Armenian genocide of the early 20th century, caring for children who had been orphaned. When the French arrived to evacuate the city, Evelyn wrote to her family in McPherson, Kan., that she had decided to stay with her orphans. Evelyn felt called and was willing to continue to suffer with these small, frightened, motherless and fatherless children, those whose parents had been murdered in a horrifying ethnic cleansing carried out by the Turks that took the lives of more than 1.5 million people.
As all expectant and nursing mothers do, but in a much more dramatic way, Evelyn laid her body on the line in an act of gracious self-giving that sustained the lives of many Armenian children. She lived out her calling as one made in the image of the nurturing, sustaining, compassionate God.
Perhaps we, too, need to enter into the suffering of those whom Jesus referred to as “the least of these,” to give not simply handouts but hands: hands of love, hands of compassion, hands of caring, hands to hold through the night. We walk together even through the valley of the shadow of death, accompanied by The One Who Sustains Our Life.
Bobbi Dykema is pastor of Springfield (Ill.) First Church of the Brethren. She previously served as a pastor and youth pastor in Pacific Northwest District and as instructor of Humanities & World Religions for Strayer University.