By Fr Anthony Le Duc SVD
Every year, the Society of the Divine Word celebrates its founding day on 8 September, which coincides with the Nativity of Mary. This year marks the 144th anniversary since St. Arnold Janssen formally established this missionary society, which presently has over 6,000 members serving in more than 80 countries around the world. I am writing this reflection from Thailand, where the Society has made its presence since exactly 20 years ago.
Unlike the founding day of our Society, we do not know the actual date on which the Blessed Virgin Mary was born. If I am not mistaken, despite the countless apparitions of Mary around the world over the centuries, she has never revealed this little piece of information to us. However, the Church has chosen a particular day in the liturgical calendar in order to celebrate Mary’s birthday, just as the Church has done the same with the birthdays of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ.
In the history of the Church, Mary’s birthday began to be celebrated as early as the 6th century. Tradition says Mary’s parents are St Joachim and St Anne, who could not have a child. They earnestly prayed to God for a child, and their prayer was answered with the birth of a daughter whom they named Mary. Even though this story could not be verified historically, what we can see from the accounts that have been handed down to us through tradition is that Mary’s birth was indeed part of God’s great plan of salvation.
Why do we celebrate Mary’s birthday? In reality, the fact that Mary’s birth is given special attention by the Church is not because the birth of a person into the world itself is a terribly important event. We celebrate Mary’s birthday not on account of this single event, but in context of her life in its totality—a life that helps us to realise that the earthly birth of Mary was truly meaningful. Mary’s birth marked the beginning of a life that was totally conformed to the will of God and ever ready to collaborate with God in His plan of salvation. In Mary’s “yes” to carrying Jesus in her womb and her constant “yeses” to all the things that would ensue as a result of her initial response to God, we see a life of holiness and obedience to God in an extraordinary way. In Mary’s life and her role in God’s redemptive plan, we realise the true significance of her birth.
For the Society of the Divine Word, as we celebrate Mary’s birth and the founding day of the Society, we must also look upon this occasion not as remembering a historical event. Rather, it is also an important time for the congregation to examine ourselves and see the significance of our presence in the Church and the world throughout our 144 years of existence. The quality of who we are as a congregation can only be determined based on the number of yeses that we say to God’s call for commitment and service, on our fidelity to the mission of love, on our zeal in proclaiming the Good News to those who have not had the chance to hear the Gospel, and on our constant endeavor to reform and improve ourselves to be more like Mary whom the Church as well as our Founder, St Arnold Janssen has held up for us to imitate.
As individual Christians, each of us can also look to Mary’s birthday to remind ourselves of the potential meaning and significance of our own birth into this world. Every year, as we celebrate our own birthday with family and friends, it is important to remember that this event in our life has to be seen in the context of our entire life journey from the moment we opened our eyes to the world until the second we depart from it. The birthdays that we celebrate year after year are truly meaningful when it is evident to ourselves and to others that our presence in this world has made it slightly more happy and peaceful, that we have made some contributions, however small, to God’s tremendous plan of love and mercy.
Indeed, birthday celebrations are never about remembering something that took place in the past, but are about taking the long view backward and forward regarding how our life is supposed to be lived. For Christians, the criteria for determining a good life is not about how much money we have in the bank, how many cars we have in the garage, how many friends we can invite to our party, or how many followers we manage to garner on our Twitter/Instagram account. The criteria, instead, is the number of acts of love, words of understanding, and gestures of charity and forgiveness that we have displayed in our everyday life. The criteria for judging the quality of one’s life lies in the number of “yeses” as response to God’s invitation to collaborate in the mission of proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom. Certainly, our birthday is truly meaningful when this occasion is set against the background of an entire life with a series of words, gestures and acts filled with faith, hope and love. It is through these things that we demonstrate the quality of life—a life in tune with God’s will and shares in God’s great mission for the world, a mission that God has carried out through many individuals, especially Jesus, and Mary, and today, through each one of us.