In our culture, birthdays have become days of celebration for the individual who was born. Pope Francis taught us that celebration is the “invention of God” and comes after hard work. “God himself teaches us the importance of dedicating time to contemplate and enjoy what has been done well in work. I speak of work, naturally, not only in the sense of employment and profession, but in the broader sense: every action by which we as men and women cooperate in God’s creative work.” Francis, Audience, 12 August 2015 Pope Francis explains that in the light of Genesis 1: all celebration originates in God's “celebration” on the seventh day when He looked back on all He had done and saw that it was very good.
In light of this, what is a birthday celebration? Clearly a birth, which comes, more or less, nine months after the conception of a new human life in the womb of the mother, is an example of when “men and women cooperate in God's creative work.” Furthermore, a birth comes immediately after the work that we even call “labor.” A mother labors to bring a child into the world. In fact, she has already been laboring in various ways over the previous nine months, from morning sickness in the first months, to the discomfort of the changes in her body, changes in her eating, changes in her routine, changes in what she is able to accomplish, preparations for welcoming the new baby, changes in her future plans, perhaps, anticipation of the work that is forthcoming and the many years of committed loving service that lie ahead. We are focusing on the mother here, but, of course, a good father is also involved in many of these labors as he supports his wife in her child bearing.
Often we celebrate events after many, many years–a silver jubilee or a golden jubilee, for example. In the case of a child birth, we celebrate after only nine months. That teaches us how important a child is and how great the labor has been to care for that child in the first months of his or her life and to prepare to parent that child for the rest of life, with particular intensity for a couple of decades. Furthermore, God blesses that celebration with a significant feature, also indicating His intention that we celebrate the great moment of child birth: the moment of child birth can be seen as a special analogue to God's experience of looking back on creation. He looked back each day and saw that it was “good,” but on the seventh day, the great day of celebration, He saw that it was “very good.” The joy of God and the joy of parents, that makes them say it is “very good,” is the sight of a human face and the sound of a human voice. A baby's birthday is the first time we are able to see his or her face and hear his or her voice.
Another special quality of the nine months of labor that precede birth, is the place where the baby is being formed–the mother's womb. Let us reflect on the significance of this choice of God–that each of us would spend nine months in a mother's womb before our face and our voice would be revealed to the world. We can reflect on the qualities of the womb at length, but let us consider just a couple of those qualities. In the womb, a baby is entirely enfolded in the body of a mother. It is like a hug that is so total and so tight that the one being embraced is taken entirely into the other. That's a very loving embrace! Furthermore, in the womb, the baby rests constantly beneath the heart of the mother. In the womb, the baby's oxygen passes first through the lungs of the mother. The baby's food is first digested by the mother. Everything the baby receives is chosen, consumed and prepared by the mother. In this way, a good mother filters, by her choice and her body, anything that would harm the baby. Likewise, a good mother thoughtfully and intentionally lives her life as a constant act of love for her baby, with every breath, every decision, every action now impacting another human life that is radically vulnerable and subject to her care.
In this human reality of a mother's womb, God teaches us about His own essence–mercy. “In the prophetic tradition, mercy is strictly related – even on the etymological level – to the maternal womb (rahamim).” Pope Francis, Message for Lent 2016. In other words, in God's design, every human being is intended to spend nine months in mercy before being revealed to the world. Furthermore, as described earlier, this mercy that a baby receives, is a labor, involving both mother and father. Lastly, the joy of birth, perhaps the greatest natural joy–to behold the face of a new human life–is the joy that comes after months of mercy. This is expressed on the supernatural level in the Gospel. Jesus exclaims about the joy and celebration that comes through mercy, “there will be rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:10). To summarize, we can say that in God's design, mercy is the labor that gives birth to new life and brings us to the joyful celebration of beholding a new human face and hearing a new human voice.
Perhaps these reflections will enhance our celebration of birthdays in a few ways. Namely, let us remember the important labor of parents, especially mothers, whose labor cooperated with God to conceive new life and nurture that new life and bring it to birth. Their cooperation with God gave us the joy of beholding that new, adorable, little human face and hearing that human voice for the first time. Furthermore, let us take note that the joy of a birthday is the joy of mercy. By receiving the Father's mercy, we can have a birthday every day. Every time we turn our hearts back to the Lord, we are reborn through the labor of Jesus on the Cross who has carried us in His Heart before giving birth to us again through His pierced side.