Well, according to the calendar, I'm now one-year older than I was yesterday. This is all well and good, I suppose, but I can't say that I feel much different. The only ostensible change is that I now have to tell people I'm "26" rather than "25" and, if my track record holds, it'll take 3-4 months for me to get that straight.
At the age of 26, I'll confess to feeling pretty immature. There are so many things out there that I haven't done or experienced yet! But it dawned on me today that, by the time she was my age, my mother had one child already and (give or take a few months) another one on the way. I'm barely responsible for myself and it's hard to imagine having kids.
I look to my friend Eric and his family - he's 28 and has a son, his wife is in medical school (finishing up) and he's earned two MA's in the last three years and now works full time. I can't help but marvel at the love he has for his wife and son and his ability to manage so many demands placed on his life. He and his wife work to provide for their young family, work to provide a loving and nurturing environment for their son.
This leads me to think about my Grandma Duns. I'm not exactly sure, but I suspect she was in her early fifties when I was born. My dad is now in his mid fifties and (unless my brother isn't telling us something) my parents still don't have grandchildren. I can't really see Bob and Michele as grandparents (at least not yet). I learned a lot from her and, as I get older, I see her through new lenses and realize that her imperfect humanity betrayed a very perfect love that she had for her family and others. I don't think it an exaggeration to say that she incarnated the essence of hospitality - she was a living neon light that cried out "All are Welcome!"
I miss my grandmother and my family and friends. I keep in contact with them, of course, but it's not the same as being with them. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews wrote that "we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses" (Heb 12:1) and on this, my birthday, I'd like to acknowledge those persons who have given me life by their witness and companionship. I am the man I am today because of my parents and siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins, Tim Wintour and Christie Varga and Eric Abercrombie and Jimmy Menkhaus, my fellow Jesuits, Anne Hall and John Cunniffe and Mary Bryan, Tom Hastings and Tom Byrne and Tom McCaffery, Ben Fiore and Joan Nuth and Abba Gray and Ed Peck, Michael and Brian and Mary Ellen English, and so so so many others. This is the cloud of witnesses that have given me life, that have made my life worth living and have helped to love me into the person I am today. Birthdays shouldn't celebrate one person as though he or she were an isolated monad; they should, rather, celebrate those persons who, in surrounding the person whose birth we commemorate, have given him or her life.
This day also marks the Feast of the North American Martyrs. In light of what I've been saying, I might make the suggestion that martyrdom is not reserved for those who die bloody deaths. A fellow student recently remarked that such "Red Martyrdom" was the most perfect of martyrdom. I can understand what he's saying, but I don't agree. Tradition has a "White Martyrdom" that I think is the complement to giving one's life (literally) for a cause.
Archbishop Oscar Romero was certainly a martyr. In true prophetic fashion, he "could not not speak for God." The unfettered message of the Gospel thrust him on the timbers of the cross where he met his end in a hail of bullets while celebrating the Eucharist.
This is a jarring image and one that should shock us out of complacency. It makes the news. It makes movies.
But what of the woman who, day in and day out, goes to visit her aged mother in a nursing home and over time watches the woman who loved her into life slowly slip closer and closer towards the horizon of death? What of the father who cradles his son when the diagnosis of Leukemia is delivered, the father who is able to pray nothing more than, "Not him, God! Me! Let it be me!"? What of the aged woman who has lost many family members but has prayed resolutely, has doubted strongly, but continues to cast herself into the embrace of the crucified Christ?
These are not news stories. These will not make movies and, barring the rare exception, none will be canonized. But is any one of them less a martyr, is any one of them who surrenders to the mystery of suffering, of the humdrum of daily life, of a life in service to others, is any one of them not a witness when such actions are undertaken due to the inspiration of the Gospel?
I gave the homily last year and my closing line was "Death is not the cause of martyrdom, it is the consequence." I still believe this. Each of us faces death on a day-to-day basis. Countless little deaths abound, but these add up. The deaths of parenting, of loving, of working, of praying. Each of these inscribes in time and space a testimony of witness, a chronicle of a life lived in response to and promotion of the Gospel.
I'm glad my birthday is on this feast day. I can celebrate those who have given me life and those around me who testify to the life I might aspire to lead their daily witness, their daily martyrdom.