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Happy Birthday! – Br. Nicholas Bartoli

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Br. Nicholas Bartoli

Celebrating: The Nativity of Mary

When I was a child, one of my favorite Christmas television shows was Frosty the Snowman. It was a short cartoon made in 1969, and narrated by Jimmy Durante; who also sang the song the story is based on. The song begins this way:

Frosty the snowman was a jolly happy soul
With a corncob pipe and a button nose
And two eyes made out of coal
Frosty the snowman is a fairytale they say
He was made of snow but the children
Know how he came to life one day

What happens in the story is that some children build a snowman, and name him “Frosty.” While they’re admiring their new creation, a chance gust of wind carries a magical hat to the top of Frosty’s head, and suddenly Frosty comes to life. A number of adventures follow where the children foil the plans of an evil magician, intent on taking the magical hat for himself. During all this, Frosty sometimes loses the hat, and whenever the hat is placed on his head, including that first time, and as he springs to life, he lets out a joyous shout of: “Happy Birthday!”

And today we give a joyous shout of “Happy Birthday” for Mary, Jesus’ mother. Actually, we are a bit late, since the date in the church’s calendar was a couple of days ago, but a belated “Happy Birthday” is better than none at all. In some ways, though, and no offense to Mary, it’s not a very obvious choice to add to the church calendar. Many Christians don’t even celebrate Mary’s birthday, and we don’t have a biblical account of her birth to lend that kind of authority to the celebration. Still, the celebration of Mary’s birth is an ancient tradition going back to at least the sixth century.

Jewish followers of Jesus, in the first century or two, would have been very interested to explore all things related to Mary, partly because of her role if fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14: “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” Also, arguments concerning the precise nature of Jesus’ birth were common, and so Mary’s story would have helped contribute a bit more depth and context to Jesus’ nativity. Presumably as a result of all this interest, an account of Mary’s life was written in the mid second century, an account we now call the Gospel, or Proto-Gospel, of James. The Gospel of James never made it into the official canon of the bible, and to be honest it was never seriously in the running, but it certainly sparked early Christians’ imaginations, eventually leading to the commemoration of many facets of Mary’s life. For example, we have the honoring of her parents, Anna and Joachim, and the presentation of Mary at the Temple in Jerusalem.

As far as Mary’s birth goes, we celebrate it mainly because of her very crucial and unique role in our salvation history. But, since the earliest days of the church, there’s also been a special emphasis placed on Mary’s holiness, on the importance of her special state of being without sin from the moment of her birth. And, for some, the inception of Mary’s holiness is pushed back as far as her conception, hence the feast nine months before this one. It does make a certain kind of sense that the mother of Jesus would be particularly pure and holy, pristinely without sin, immaculate. The theology behind this, however, isn’t without controversy, with the most common argument against Mary’s special sinlessness being that it might be seen to place Jesus’ role in salvation into question. But, for now, let’s not descend down that particular theological rabbit hole.

For our purpose, today, it’s helpful just to ask how can a theology of Mary’s birth and pureness in relation to Jesus’ birth tell us something about our lives of prayer in Christ, and about our coming to know God’s Kingdom? Well, this is where Frosty, our snowman friend might be helpful. For Frosty there was this mysterious wind carrying with it that magical hat… bringing Frosty to life in the very moment it came to rest on his head. But, maybe, at least the way the children may have seen it, Frosty was already alive, and the “Happy Birthday” moment was just the recognition of his amazing aliveness. Frosty knew, and the children knew, that being alive was mostly about recognizing the joy of aliveness and then sharing it with the world. For us, the Holy Spirit blows where it will, carrying with it an invitation to recognize the miracle of our own birth and aliveness in this and every moment.

A scientist once calculated how likely your birth is if you were to factor in things like the particular egg and sperm needed, your parents meeting, staying together, etc, and then going back a few hundred generations of random meetings of your ancestors. It turns out that the probability of the unique person you are being born is so infinitesimally small it’s essentially zero, making you an amazing and beautiful miracle. Maybe this is what Frosty knew, and what small children know, too, and maybe that’s why any time Frosty came alive to the true miracle of being alive, he couldn’t help but joyfully shout “Happy Birthday.”

And as wonderful as all that is, it gets better. Just being here as miraculous and unique expressions of personhood is joyous enough, but we can also wonder why we’re here. In Mary’s case, her call was to take the life given her and humble herself before God, thereby giving birth to Jesus, and bringing him into the world. A common interpretation of this is that Mary serves as the example for all of us, as we too are called to humble ourselves before God, emptying ourselves so as to bear Christ in our hearts. By adding to Mary’s story, though, the Gospel of James takes it a step further: Mary’s very conception and birth are part of God’s plan. And, with Mary being our spiritual model, the implication is that our conception and birth are also part of the unfolding of God’s will and providence. Our impossibly unlikely births serve as an essential step in the realizing of God’s presence and Christ’s Light.

But as good as that news is, the good news gets even better. Remember, one of the inspirations for celebrating Mary’s birthday was her purity, her state of sinlessness. So, if Mary’s story is also our story, this says something about our purity as well. Afterall, original sin presumes a state of humanity to which sin would be applied, and this truly original condition would be our own state of immaculate perfection. When looked at this way, original sin becomes just us forgetting our own original and blessed nature, as beings made in God’s image, perfectly beautiful, and perfect vessels for giving birth to Christ. This is what Mary’s story, in its fullness, can teach us. And it’s such an important message, because so many people can’t seem to shake the belief that deep down, at their core, something is horribly wrong with them, and that is a sin. Because, if you spend most of your time and energy convincing yourself of your worthlessness, or trying in countless, futile ways to redeem yourself, it just doesn’t leave much room for resting in who you truly are, already in union with the Holy One, and so perfectly prepared to bring Christ’s Light into the world.

Eventually, Frosty the Snowman needs to leave the children and go on his way:

But he waved goodbye saying
Don’t you cry
I’ll be back on Christmas Day!

Frosty had helped the children give tremendous thanks for the miracle of being born, of the awareness of being alive, and for the opportunity this aliveness gives for realizing Christ’s birth. And truly, every day, every moment is an invitation for us to give thanks, to remember the miracle of our birth, our aliveness in God’s likeness, clothed in the Light of creation, and in that very same moment give birth to Christ in our hearts, rejoicing in Christ’s radiance. Every moment can be our birthday and Christmas, all at the same time, and good news just doesn’t get better than that.

And if this good news could be said to depend on anything at all, it would simply be knowing who you are in Christ. So, remember, your birth and ongoing being are God’s creation, and God does not make anything that isn’t immaculate and perfect. So, there is absolutely nothing wrong with you. There’s nothing wrong with you, and there never was. Mary knew this to be true, and it’s what she’s telling you through her own story: you are God’s miraculous and unique dwelling place where Christ is born. You are as pure and holy as God creates you to be, and all for the purpose of realizing the truth of this, and of Christ’s birth. You are an integral part of God’s story, like a fairytale come to life, and in God’s story there is nothing wrong with you, you’re perfect just as you are. The only sin is forgetting this.

And if you need a reminder, just remember that it begins with recognizing and our unique, miraculous aliveness and being. And so, for Mary today, and for all us, I’d like to offer a very, very, happy birthday.

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