I’m at the age where birthdays aren’t as much of a reason for extended celebration and self-indulgence. While I’m grateful to God for another year of life, I don’t feel the need to gather a large group of loved ones, grab my princess scepter and hold court in honor of “my special day.”
Besides, I’m usually working to support two rather ungrateful cats, so when the calendar flips in my direction, I’m content to enjoy some vegetarian sushi or Chinese takeout, followed by a densely chocolate dessert.
And I was on track to do just that this year — until I realized that my birthday would fall on Ash Wednesday.
My dilemma, of course, was obvious. The required fast, along with my intention to renounce sugar for Lent, essentially cancelled my already modest birthday plans. No vegetable tempura. No deep-fried spring rolls. And — perhaps most painful of all — no chocolate.
For a few moments, I thought about bargaining with the Lord. Would a few extra Hail Marys offset the sushi and cake on Ash Wednesday? Could I fast on Mardi Gras instead? These deep theological questions troubled me as I pondered my surprisingly strong attachment to creature comforts.
Reading a passage from St. Gregory of Nyssa (part of the day’s Liturgy of the Hours) didn’t exactly help — at least, not initially. If anything, the saint’s words were salt in the wound: “Death invariably follows birth and everyone who is born comes at last to the grave.”
“Yes, St. Gregory,” I silently retorted. “But I’d like to have dessert first.”
However, as I reflected on the wise bishop’s homily, my sweet tooth lost its bite. The real birth St. Gregory focused on was our salvation, and unlike our natural birth, that’s something for which we bear a frightening level of responsibility: “We are in a sense our own parents, and we give birth to ourselves by our own free choice of what is good.”
When we open our hearts to the Lord, and allow ourselves to become his children, we can choose life. But if what St. Paul calls “the form of Christ” is not found in us, our growth ceases; St. Gregory bluntly says that “we abort ourselves.”
Death, like birth, is central to our salvation, and “for St. Paul, every moment was a time to die,” wrote St. Gregory.
How the Apostle “died daily is perfectly obvious,” St. Gregory continued, since “he never gave himself up to a sinful life but kept his body under constant control.” For Paul, life wasn’t about getting what he wanted, when he wanted, no matter how trivial: “He was always being crucified with Christ. It was not his own life he lived; it was Christ who lived in him.”
Such surrender confounds us, even when we genuinely strive to follow Jesus. We wonder why our stinting sacrifices are insufficient, and ask how much more we must give up to “be perfect, even as (our) heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). The shedding of our very selves can be agonizing; indeed, it is no less than death.
Yet the reward is far greater than either passing torments or treasures, as St. Gregory assures us: “I put to death and I shall give life, God says, teaching us that death to sin and life in the Spirit is his gift, and promising that whatever he puts to death he will restore to life again.”
And that assurance is sweeter than chocolate cake, and more priceless than any birthday present.
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