One of the perks of growing older is that you not only get to celebrate a lot of people’s birthdays but also many birthdays of the same people.
It’s quite an experience to remember a person’s first cake-in-the-face birthday party while celebrating a subsequent one 40 or 50 years later.
A first birthday is an extension of the excitement of birth itself, when the gift of life is perhaps the most vivid.
An entire family is reoriented by the presence of this new, fresh and innocent companion on life’s journey; the world is changed, at least their part of it, by this new relationship.
Later birthday gatherings celebrate that companionship with an ever-increasing accumulation of experiences, challenges and discoveries that enrich us as persons and deepen the community we share with the honoree.
Over time, the excitement of birth and first birthday celebrations grows into a profound mix of gratitude for the enrichment of a shared life and openness to the new discoveries that our journey has taught us to expect.
The infant who represented so much joy and promise has grown to become one who both affirms and questions, who looks with us at life but also sees things we cannot see, and who enriches our view of the world with newly discovered insights.
Even our memories of those first birthday parties are enriched and refined by what we have experienced in the life shared since that day.
We now see the joy and excitement through the lens of the journey of relationship; perhaps more than we could have then, we understand how profoundly creative and redemptive that relationship can be.
I have been reflecting recently on the way some of my younger companions on the journey, whose births I recall celebrating with much joy and excitement, have “grown up” to raise questions, provide challenges and offer new ways of thinking about many aspects of life.
Sometimes their questions and challenges have pushed me beyond the comfort zone of my established ways of thinking.
The easy control that I might have exercised in the earlier stages of the relationship has given way to openness regarding what I might see through a new lens or from a new vantage point provided by someone else’s experience.
The new way of seeing is not always better, but it often is, and openness to its possibility nurtures the relationship that gave it birth and promises continued refinement.
As we move through Advent’s preparation for the church’s celebration of that first birthday we call Christmas, we naturally look forward to remembering and reliving the joy of the new life that has changed the world in so many ways.
Tradition has provided us with vivid images that serve to re-create the experience of that first birthday; for a time at least, the Christian family, and even neighbors beyond, embrace a sense of community and celebration.
The Christian journey reminds us that we also experience the maturing of our relationship with this special life, as we do with each other.
We do so in gratitude for the gift of being called into partnership with the one who discloses to us the path of meaning and wholeness, and in openness to what we are yet to discover in his fellowship.
The joy of Christmas and the celebration of the birth of Jesus are now joined by many generations of experience with the man he grew up to be – the man who challenged and reoriented established ways of thinking, who surprised friend and foe alike with a new vision of what the human family could be, and who was willing to offer his sacrificial love on behalf of the vulnerable and marginalized.
As we gather this year ’round the manger and celebrate the nativity, experiencing the peace and unity the season encourages, perhaps we can also embrace an openness to the surprising discoveries about God and ourselves that this birth invites us to anticipate.
History is filled with surprising changes that have occurred as a result of the partnership he and his followers have forged. What surprises do you suppose are on our horizon?
Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.