On Birthday Cake and Religion by Libby DuPont

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dupont_libbyTo say that last week was busy would be a gross understatement. I was preparing for the opening week of faith formation programming as well as our overnight confirmation kick-off retreat. I had meetings galore, my son Isaac’s first week of preschool and a standing monthly dinner date with friends. When I wasn’t running around or returning endless calls from parents, I was manically finishing up procrastinated homework for my monthly, weekend-long graduate classes that were going to be held during the confirmation retreat. Oh, and it was my birthday.

In spite of the craziness, we carved out some time Thursday night to celebrate my birthday by going out to dinner with my mother. We went to one of my favorite places, which provided a free “birthday cake”, which was really an unspectacular oversized cupcake. We sang the requisite song, shared the cupcake and I considered the birthday festivities complete. Isaac, on the other hand, did not.

He woke up Friday morning, my actual birthday, and said, “So, Mom, what are we going to do to celebrate your birthday?”

“Well, Honey, we celebrated last night at dinner. Today Mommy has a very busy day. We have to go buy food for the teens’ retreat and then Mommy has to go to work and then to school.”

“But, Mom, yesterday wasn’t your birthday. Today is your birthday! And shopping is not celebrating!”

He was right. By definition, celebrating a birthday in our family has meant cake and candles; for each member of the family, living or dead. My desire for efficiency was offensive to him. I was breaking protocol. So, that morning, at the warehouse club, while I bought frozen lasagna and cookies for work, Isaac and my mom bought me a cake. I made a special trip home after he got back from preschool to eat a rushed dinner and blow out the candles, and justice was served in the DuPont home.

As human beings, our lives are filled with protocol; things that need to be done in certain situations. Family customs and rituals mark our lives, whether it’s a summer trip to the cabin or Grandma’s stuffing at Thanksgiving. They create a rhythm of life, and remind us of what is really important. Mostly, though, along with a thousand practical actions done every day, they give shape to our love for one another. We know deep within that love must be shown through action. It is not enough for me to love my husband in some abstract way if I do not buy groceries, make dinner or speak to him in a respectful way. After all, I am his wife, and such acts of kindness are not extra, but essential to our healthy relationship.

It is fairly easy to see how love is proved in our human relationships, and how even certain acts might be due in justice to those who are closest to us. Why, then, when it comes to God, are we sometimes quick to keep our relationship in the abstract? If we are in relationship with the God who created us out of nothing, shouldn’t there be certain acts we owe him out of justice? Every society on the face of the planet before ours certainly thought so. Before the modern age, every society practiced what St. Thomas Aquinas called the natural virtue of religion. All humans are capable by reason of realizing that they didn’t make themselves, and that some deity greater than themselves deserves the credit. We are wired for worship.

In modern society, however, the virtue of religion is often an oxymoron. Many people believe that the rigid rules of religion will hinder them from becoming truly spiritual or virtuous. When it comes to our Catholic faith, this could not be further from the truth. Let’s take mandatory Sunday Mass, for example. There are some who would rather go out in the woods and commune with nature than sit in a stuffy building and recite the same prayers they did last week. They believe themselves more fulfilled watching the sunrise than listening to a homily.

To answer such a person we first should remember that we could never get more out of any exchange than the one that takes place at our parish each Sunday. Jesus Christ, God made man, offers us himself through the living word of Scripture and through his sacramental presence in the Eucharist. We hold in our hands or on our tongues a gift that the ancients, who had only the forest to ponder, would never have dreamed possible!

Secondly, we need to realize that even if God wanted us to show up each week and simply offer sacrifice as the Israelites did, without receiving in return, we would still be obliged to comply. The reason is a matter of justice. God has given us everything as a gracious gift of love, so everything we have is really his. It is his right to demand what he wills from us.

But God, who is love, only demands that which will bring us closer to him. We are to pray to him, just as we are obliged to ask our spouse our children about their day. We observe seasons and feast days, just as we mark anniversaries and birthdays in our home. We are asked to offer sacrifice and praise to him, just as we work hard to give our loved ones their due. This is the stuff of religion.

If we are supposed to become like children in order to enter the kingdom of God, maybe we should take a cue from my preschooler. To him, cake was not just an empty ritual, but a way of expressing his love for his mother. We could not skip it without some of the love being lost as well. If we consider our religious duties in a similar way, they can be filled with greater and greater love. Plus, they are calorie-free.

Copyright 2009 Libby DuPont

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