We were praying the Rosary. Sister Claire announced the Nativity as “Happy Birthday Jesus.” After we completed the Rosary, I gently suggested perhaps one should not talk to God that way in prayer. Claire smiled and asked me, “why not?” Even as I spoke them, I knew my words that Jesus had been a child celebrating birthdays thousands of years ago somehow missed the mark.
Claire asked me to explain why the joyful mystery of finding the Child Jesus in the Temple was my favorite. My turn to smile. This is where the Child Jesus was discerning and strengthening His relationship with God the Father. That resonated with me personally and professionally. Many high school kids asked me how I knew and felt God in my life. Together we would read about then reflect upon Jesus in the Temple. One important part was talking with others who knew God. Another was developing a deep, personal relationship with our loving God.
Claire reminded me that I readily moved between my thoughts on Jesus as God and Jesus as human. The same was true for Jesus as a newborn. Although, she was correct, I still balked at the Happy Birthday. Claire and I reached an understanding. When we prayed the Rosary, she would announce the Nativity. I would announce Jesus found in the Temple. There was an amazing peace and joy that settled upon Claire as she wished Baby Jesus a Happy Birthday. Over time I realized that I was glimpsing Claire standing lovingly before Our Lord. St. Paul describes this as “The peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:7).
American depictions of the Nativity often depict Matthew’s Magi (Mt 2: 1-12) on one side with Luke’s shepherds (Lk 2: 15-20) on the other. Together the Magi and shepherds symbolize the spectrum of all of mankind. God called to the learned Magi from the disciplines of their study. With their wealth, they gathered gifts from the best the world had to offer. The shepherds worked all day. They had settled the animals for the night. There was no light pollution so their view of the other stars within God’s universe was amazing. Suddenly, an angel appeared to them announcing the birth of a Savior. All the shepherds had to give was themselves and from the fruits of their labor. That sheep upon the shoulders of the shepherd boy was perhaps his gift to the newborn King.
December is a tough month for an overworked educator. I remember one year feeling totally overwhelmed and exhausted as I stood before a Nativity covered in a few inches of snow. I irritably told the Wise Men they should have better anticipated the needs of the newborn. I thought at least radiated heat from the shepherd boy’s sheep might keep the Holy Family warm. I mounted the steps to the nursing home. I turned back to the manger as a peace began to settle in my heart. I realized the reminder that the improvised gift, given truly from the heart, and freely sharing from the blessings received from God was the greatest gift of all for the Savior.
The last couple of years of Sister Claire’s life were spent in that nursing home. There wasn’t room for a guest chair. So, I sat at the foot of her bed as we prayed the Rosary. Across from me was the sink and mirror. As dementia stripped Claire’s cognitive abilities, we just always prayed the Joyous Mysteries. Peeking at that mirror, I could see the joy in Claire’s demeanor as she wished Jesus a Happy Birthday. If anything, her expression of joy had deepened. What was new was the chance I had to glimpse my face as I announced the mystery of finding Jesus in the Temple. I thought I recognized the beginning of such joy within me.
There is a reason the Church celebrates Advent and the Nativity at the start of the Liturgical year. The call for each of us is to reflect where God is calling us to journey in the upcoming year. Lean into the moment.
One Christmas morning, a few years after Sister Claire’s passing, I stood before that Nativity. What was different was my perspective. Baby Jesus’ face was visible. His body was covered in a fine layer of God’s white blanket (snow). I told the Wise Men to go use some of that gold for blankets. Get one for the shepherd boy, too. I told the shepherd boy to share with the Holy Family his knowledge of how to keep warm and safe on a bitterly cold night. I smiled and wished Baby Jesus a Happy Birthday. I ran up the steps to assist at Mass.
God’s angel said, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a Savior has been born for you Who is Messiah and Lord” (Lk 2:10-11).
Anchor columnist Dr. Helen J. Flavin, Ph.D., is a Catholic scientist, educator and writer.