I celebrated my sixty-ninth birthday yesterday, and so I was particularly happy that today I found myself singing with the children in Sunday School, “I sing a song of the saints of God…”
We all love birthdays, ours or others, for they are celebrations of life. Birthdays are markers in time, signposts on our journey from birth to death. Birthdays proclaim birth-years, a twelve month unit man has created to organize his life on earth. When we are young birthdays mean cake and presents. In this way we are taught to celebrate them. As we age, birthdays say, hooray, I’m alive, I made it another year. Birthdays are one way man faces the reality of his existence, life’s transitory span, the fact that our bodies will, no matter what we do, one day turn to dust.
We are creatures bound in time, yet we yearn for eternity. And so we ignore, even deny, that our time is limited with a beginning and an end. We live as though we will live forever, and this denial of our mortality is not only a protection against facing our death, but evidence that eternity lives within us, our very Creator.
There was a time in Western Christendom when days were not divided into hours, and hours not divided into minutes. There were no clocks ticking, no watches with hands counting seconds. Days were observed by sunrise and sunset, and by the ringing of church bells at matins and vespers. In earlier times sundials prefigured clocks, the pointer casting a shadow, and the shadow revealing the movement of the day’s time by the movement of the sun. The longer the shadow, the lower the sun and the coming of darkness, its drawing near, nightfall and nighttime and all that that meant. Night falls, drops upon us with the setting of the sun, blanketing the earth in the sun’s giant and forbidding shadow.
We light the dark with fiery candles, so we can see. Just so eternity intersected time with the coming of Christ, a light in the darkness, gifting temporal creatures with God’s glorious present, Christ, who fills past and present and future with eternal presence, turning we mortals into immortals. But in our journey in this life we are still bound by time.
There are times when I forget time, when I am outside of time in a blessed way. They are moments of devotion, concentration, living outside myself, absorbed by others. Stories, songs, and children pull me out of time, pull me out of being aware of the minutes slip-sliding away, disappearing. Love does this too, with the touch of friendship, the eyes of the beloved. The mysterious bond of marriage that, with grace, time strengthens, is a bond forged in mutual selflessness and sacrifice birthed by vows blessed by God. The love of mothers and fathers for their children opens a door to the eternal. The mystery of love, moving away from self toward the other, pulls us to the shores of eternity so that we can dip our toes in its waters. These mysteries tell us eternity is now.
On the annual remembrance of the day of birth we light birthday candles. We sing to the honoree. We give gifts to bind us together with love. The ritual teaches our children that life is good, to be celebrated, that life shines light upon the world, and that we are thankful for life, every year, day, minute, second. We show our thanks by our love. We sing joyously, triumphantly, carrying a blazing cake into a darkened room. The birthday honoree makes a wish and blows out the candles. In the light we wish for our heart’s desire, and the wishing itself (and all those fairy tales about wishes) reflects our yearning for eternity, our longing for the flames on the cake to never go out. The child blows and the light is gone. We sigh, seeing our future.
The colored wax drips, drowned by the frosting. The cake is cut, and we break bread together. We take part in our common humanity in this celebration of another year of life.
Last night, I dipped my fork into the chocolate brownie cake, with its gooey frosting and melting ice cream alongside. I tasted the dark richness and briefly wondered whether chocolate itself might be a bit of eternity. Thinking back, I’m sure it is.
We are given so many tastes of eternity in life: through our senses, through scripture, sacrament, and song, through the glory of the earth, through our life with one another.
But we are also given tastes of no-eternity, darkness, that other state of being, often called Hell. The two streams, the river of Heaven and the river of Hell, flow through our own time in this world. One stream is love and the other unlove; one selfless, the other self-ish; one sacrifice, the other indulgence; one freedom, the other slavery; one life, the other death. We can choose which stream to follow.
My old bishop loved the hymn, “Shall we gather at the river”:
“Shall we gather at the river/Where bright angel feet have trod,/With its crystal tide forever/Flowing by the throne of God?”
And the refrain:
“Yes, we’ll gather at the river,/The beautiful, the beautiful river;/Gather with the saints at the river/That flows by the throne of God.”
And so my sixty-nine birthdays have flowed like a river through my time on this earth, and I now sail into my seventieth year. There will be swirling currents, still-waters, waterfalls, undertows, risings and floods. But through the Church, and with the grace of God, the stream will lead to the river that flows by his throne. I shall then celebrate a rebirth-day in a timeless time, marked by the singing of saints and angels.
The children this morning sang with gusto, twirling and pointing and folding their hands, showing and telling about the saints of God. It was a perfect birthday gift, a grace-filled birthday blessing and I grinned as we sang the last verse:
“They lived not only in ages past,/There are hundreds of thousands still./The world is bright with the joyous saints/Who love to do Jesus’ will./You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea,/In church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea;/For the saints of God are just folk like me,/And I mean to be one too.”