Mother and Child

[Dec 15, 2019]

This is the earliest image of the “Madonna and Child,” the Virgin Mary holding her son. It’s found in the Catacomb of Priscilla in Rome, and dates to the early 200’s. At the time this image would have been so new that people might have wondered what it was, so the artist depicted a prophet standing beside her, pointing to a star. Perhaps this is the seer Balaam, who said “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter rise out of Israel” (Numbers 24:17-19).

As familiar as the mother-and-child image is now, I was thinking how rare it would have been before Christ came. There’s usually no reason to depict a mother and nursing child. It’s not a heroic image, not particularly glorious or amazing; it’s as everyday as a mother kneading bread or hanging out the wash. And yet we put it in our worship places, right beside images of Christ and the great heroes of our faith.

Today, the most familiar images of heroic women would be those of female superheroes, who courageously do battle alongside men. That is, they do the same things men do. We admire them for being “just as good” as men are—not for doing something distinctive that only women can do.

It reminds me of something my son Stephen (now Fr Steve Mathewes) said when he was a boy. He was watching one of those movies where a girl has to fight to be included on a boys’ baseball team, and then ends up hitting the home run. He said, “It’s like they think the best thing a girl can be is a kind of honorary boy.”

The Virgin Mary didn’t win her place in our hearts by doing something “just as good” as a man. She wins our love for doing the ordinary things women have done through history—pregnancy, birth, nursing a baby. This is dismissed as “women’s work,” and it doesn’t play a big role in our history books, and important men have mostly ignored it. Yet without that continuous stream of “women’s work,” history itself would come to an end. I’m glad that we have raised up, in the midst of our faith, an image of a young woman doing something no man could have done. I’m glad that at the center of our faith we’ve placed an image of a mother, doing what comes naturally

About Frederica Mathewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service,, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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  1. Beautifully put and such an important message for young women today. Mary demonstrates that there is power and influence in the everyday toil of motherhood.

  2. Actually Madonna and Child would have been a very common image at the time of Christ. That was a very famous image in Egypt for 3000 years by the time of Christ. Usually Isis and Horus in the exact same pose: nursing child. But most kings (pharoahs) in their birthing house in Luxor would have this image showing their divine connection.

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