The oldest of my three younger sons is six years old today. That makes it his "golden birthday" (turning six on the sixth). Remarkably, we have three such "golden birthdays" occurring among our children in this Year of Our Lord 2008: DoRena turned 21 on the 21st of January; Justinian turns 6 on the 6th of February (today); and Nicholai will turn 14 on the 14th of October, God willing. My Mom has always remembered Justinian's birthdate, 2-6-02, because 262 was the number of "A Mighty Fortress" in The Lutheran Hymnal (1941). That doesn't work with the Lutheran Service Book, but some of us won't forget the number anyway.
With my older children, even as I rejoice in their ongoing accomplishments and future plans, I'm at the point of looking back nostalgically and reminiscing about the times we have shared as they were growing up. It occurs to me that Justinian is making memories for me, now, that I'll look back upon in wonder and savor with bittersweet nostalgia somewhere down the road. I'm hoping that we'll have the chance to share a meal together today, since that is one of our family birthday customs; even though it is Ash Wednesday, a day of fasting and repentance. On this occasion, I'll feast a bit in the freedom of faith, in order to serve my son in love.
He's been pretty anxious for this day to arrive, as little boys (and girls) do tend to be about their birthdays. He's been counting down the days for a while now; which made it rather humorous when he came up to me yesterday morning, wrapped his little arms around my legs in a big ol' hug, looked up at me with that one-part-cherubic-another-part-mischievous face of his, and sweetly cooed, "Today's my birthday!" It almost broke my heart (in between chuckles) to tell him that, no, it wasn't his birthday yet. That would be "tomorrow," which has now become "today," so here we are. I think his Mom may be getting him an appropriately-sized bicycle, because he's been envying the little one that his two younger brothers recently got with their Christmas money. It was awfully precious, though, when LaRena asked him what he wanted to do for his birthday, and he stated simply that he wanted to stay home and have fun with his family.
As it turns out, besides shopping for a bike with his Mom, Justinian will be spending a fair portion of his day at church. We had the imposition of ashes this morning, in connection with a Service of Corporate Confession and Absolution; and we'll be gathered for the Divine Service this evening. I don't think Justinian minds, as he is usually happy to go to church. There were some children who received their First Communion this past Sunday, and he knows that his day will be coming soon this spring, so I am not surprised to see an eager look of expectation in his eyes when he is kneeling at the rail. He's an eager catechumen and a pious little soul (normally).
I found it particularly poignant, this morning, to apply the ashes to the foreheads of my wife and children, and perhaps it struck me most profoundly in Justinian's case, on this anniversary day of his birth. "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return." Those are sobering words to hear, but no less so to speak: to anyone, really, but especially to my own child. This is what he has inherited from me, as I have received it from my fathers back to Adam: the frailty of fallen flesh, the curse and consequences of sin, and the mortality that brings our bodies back to the dust and dirt of the ground from which we were taken. Now there's a cheery birthday thought! Looking at my little six-year-old, who's cute as a bug's ear, my eyes don't readily see the sin and death that I have passed on to him, and to which he himself has added. The truth is, though, that sometimes even six-year-olds get sick and die, or hurt and killed. Others don't live to see their sixth birthday. We confess such truths, not out of any perverse love of morbidity, but in repentant faith and the hope of the resurrection. Christ, the new and better Adam, has been raised from the dust of the earth: never to die again. Those who are baptized into Christ shall live, even though they die; and he who lives and believes in Christ, shall never die. That's what my Justinian has gotten from the Lord Jesus Christ.
He was baptized on the 24th of February, 2002, the Feast of St. Matthias the Apostle. Hence his second name. I don't know if that will prompt him in some way toward the Office of the Holy Ministry, but of course I will be pleased if he (or any of his brothers) does follow in my footsteps in that regard. For the time being, I count it all joy to be his pastor, to serve him with the gifts Christ freely gives, to catechize him in the one true faith, and to absolve his sins in Jesus' Name. By these ways and means of grace, I give him a better life than I have bestowed upon him as a father of flesh and blood. Having brought him to the font and to the voice of the Gospel, I have presented him to the Lord for the life everlasting, which shall not be taken from him.
There was some excitement surrounding the time of Justinian's birth. Indeed, what a raucous time it was! I was in the final year of my dissertation writing; which meant that I didn't really get to spend a lot of time with Justinian for the first nine or ten months of his life — but I will say this, that his beautiful little smile (he's always had a great smile) really helped to keep me going, even though I had to spend a lot of time away and missing him like crazy.
More immediately connected to his arrival, we had just moved into a new house: as of the week before. Pity my poor wife! Then, to make matters more interesting, there came a terrible ice storm that knocked out the power to our lovely new home full of boxes, and we spent several long days without electricity. The original due date would have put Justinian's birth right smack dab in the middle of all that joyful bliss and rapture, but, as it turned out, the lights were back on before he made his appearance. Nothing like piling on the stress factors in big overflowing heaps at once.
Since Justinian was supposedly due in January (though I think LaRena knew better, and I always take her word over the doctor's when it comes to such things; with apologies to my dear sister and other ob-gyns I know), he is also named for St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, and St. Gregory of Nyssa, who are commemorated on the 10th of January. I've always really liked those three guys, the Cappadocian Fathers (fourth century). From a pretty early age, Justinian enjoyed saying his "whole big long name," and we got a kick out of hearing him repeat it with a grin. LaRena would never have let me get away with using "Basil" as a first name, but it worked out alright as a middle name. One friend at church teased us, though, that we had run out of names and were resorting to spices. How silly!
Justinian's first name, I guess I should add, is for the great sixth century Byzantine emperor, who was greatly accomplished in a number of significant areas. He reigned for half a century and contributed rather a lot to both church and state. The magnificent Hagia Sophia in Constantinople was designed and constructed at his directive. Best of all, he confessed and defended the perfect unity of the divine and human natures in the one Person of Christ, the incarnate Son of God. No matter the vocations to which the Lord may call my own Justinian, at whatever age he may be in his life on this earth, I hope and pray that he will likewise so confess the Son of God, our blessed Savior, Jesus the Christ. We are none of us ever given anything more important to speak than that, Byzantine emperor and little boys alike.