Joseph, his young fiancée, Mary, and the newborn Yeshua ben Joseph have spent a rather stressful night huddled together for warmth surrounded not by nurse, midwife, heart monitor and pre-warmed baby blankets but by prickly straw, unsanitary beds of urine-stained hay in a room with dung stuck to the walls in the freezing desert night air. I can say with confidence that none of us would have endured such a shockingly obscene setting for the birth of our first child. r-MARY-BREASTFEEDING-JESUS-large570

Millennia have come and gone. Kingdoms have risen and fallen, replaced by still others. Men and women have met, married and shared new life with the world countless times before. “Sunrise, sunset, sunrise, sunset…swiftly flow the days. Seedlings turn overnight to sunflowers, blossoming even as we gaze.” This was the most ordinary of all extraordinary encounters.

In what might otherwise have been a ceremonious entrance into the physical world of an eternal God, there came instead something so decidedly small and desperately needy that one can only shake one’s head in wonder and exclaim, “huh?” This was a tiny, humdrum thing with enormous implications. God suckles a Mother’s breast, closes his eyelids to sleep and soils a diaper – for the first time in all of eternity.

That very night, God could well have frozen to death along with his parents. Jesus, as the very smile of God amid frightened sojourners, learned connectedness with his own world through the touch of parents, the taste of Mother’s milk, the pain of his first bee sting, being bullied by others, learning obedience through the humiliations accompanying disobedience; he learned to love by being loved…just as we must.

This holy family, the first expression of such intimate union with God since the Garden of Eden, paints for us a brilliant portrait of God’s intentions for us. The satisfaction of our deepest need for true intimacy with God will come for us as it did for Jesus – through the humiliation of suckling at the breast of God in vulnerable, sometimes openly hostile settings, even while sitting in our own feces. Our safety net will not be what we think. The communion we so crave, that we so need with God will come in the setting of our own spiritual family, surrounded by strangers, some intrigued, some loving, some curious, others apathetic or even dangerous.

Only as we understand our own fragility can we fully appreciate those with whom we share the stable. Only in the crucible of our own naked, shivering reality do we fully appreciate the taste of life-giving milk, of a Father’s cooing pride…in spite of those who stand around us baying, bleating, mooing their displeasure that we’ve taken up their favorite feeding trough.

Because of this single barnyard scene, we are now beholden of God, our heads pressed against his bosom as a called out community of little ones, crying out to suckle. And, to a parent, not even our worst smells could make them love us any less.

Picture found here.

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Robert Alan Rife

Robert Rife, M.A., minister of worship and music for Yakima Covenant Church (formerly Westminster Presbyterian) in Yakima, Washington, is a self-proclaimed book-nerd-word-herder, multi-instrumentalist (including Highland Bagpipes!), singer-songwriter, studio musician, choral director, poet, and liturgist. He maintains two personal blogs: Innerwoven and Robslitbits. He also blogs at Conversations Journal. Robert describes his vocation as exploring those places where life, liturgy, theology, and the arts intersect with and promote spiritual formation.

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