John the Baptist, Elizabeth Seton, and the Meaning of Birthdays

Sometimes pro-lifers want to downplay the importance of birthdays. After all, they say, a person starts life months before that. They shouldn’t. Birthdays are enormously important — so much so, we think everyone deserves one.

The Church certainly sees birthdays as critically important. June 24 (June 23 in 2022, since the Sacred Heart is the 24th) is the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, coming exactly half a year from Christmas. Interestingly, the Church never lets three months go by without some form of baby news: Christmas (Dec. 25), Annunciation (March 25), St. John the Baptist’s Nativity (June 24), the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Sept. 8), and the Immaculate Conception (Dec. 8).

It’s helpful to look at birthdays through the eyes of a saint who celebrated many of them. Elizabeth Ann Seton had five children before, as a widow, she discovered the Catholic church and embraced it.

First, it’s practically automatic, but it’s meaningful all the same: Births bring joy — even in tough times.

Speaking of John in the Gospel in the Vigil Mass for the day, the angel tells Zechariah, “And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord.”

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, mother of five, knew the sweetness of babies’ births. As a mother, she reveled in her babies, telling her sister-in-law, Rebecca, that she would kiss her baby Richard, “your little angel,” a thousand times, and sharing “a little curl of his beautiful light hair cap.”

She called her daughter Catherine “a little cherub” and said, “a more peaceable serene little being you cannot imagine.”

Sometimes, though, it isn’t obvious how the birth of a child can bring joy. In fact, children can bring pain, difficulty, and heartache.

In 1796, not long into their marriage, Elizabeth and her husband faced deep financial difficulties. “In these hours of sorrow, I have not only my poor husband’s spirits to support but also to sustain myself expecting every day the birth of another little dependent in addition to our son and daughter,” she wrote.

As little Anna and William met their new brother Richard, the future saint noted that her husband “has come through each severe trial and anguish of heart as our heavy loss” only “by referring everything to him who gives us power to support those evils which every human being must endure their proportion of.”

This is what babies are for us: A reminder that we are co-creators with God, in whose image and likeness every child is made.

Second, birthdays don’t just mark our physical life’s beginning. They bring to mind our vocation, also.

The first reading in the Mass for the day couldn’t be clearer. “The LORD called me from birth, from my mother’s womb he gave me my name. He made of me a sharp-edged sword,” it says (Isaiah 49:1b-2a).

Of course, it goes on to prophesy further about St. John the Baptist’s unique, exalted vocation, but each of us is also born with a vocation.

The Psalm for the Nativity of St. John the Baptist is a favorite. Think of it as a birthday song we can all sing to ourselves. “I praise you for I am wonderfully made. Truly you have formed my inmost being; you knit me in my mother’s womb. I give you thanks that I am fearfully, wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14).

Elizabeth shared her version of this song when she turned 33, and remarked in a letter, “My happy birthday—the first in course of thirty-three years in which the Soul has sincerely rejoiced that it exists for Immortality.”

Mother Seton celebrated birthdays that way. She summed up the meaning of her daughter Anna Maria’s eighth birthday, saying, “It is your birthday — the day that I first held you in my arms. May almighty God bless you my child and make you his child forever. Your mother’s soul prays to him to lead you through this world.”

But it is because of this that your birthday can also remind you of your death.

In early America, an age when medicine was still primitive and hygiene was not advanced, sickness, disease and death were a constant part of life. One needn’t go far out of one’s way to see the strong connection between birth, vocation, and death.

Elizabeth, after having lost two of her children, wrote an ode for Catherine Seton’s 19th birthday. “Whose birthday is this, my dear Savior? It is my darling one’s, my child’s, my friend’s… Whose birthday did you say? Of the redeemed soul so dear, the dearest portion of myself on earth to be a dearer portion still in heaven.”

As spiritual guide to Mother Seton, Father Simon Brute wrote to her, “every moment your birth … his death — our Eternity!”

But, a birthday is a call not just to an individual, but to a whole community.

The Gospel describes John’s birthday like this. “When the time arrived for Elizabeth to have her child, she gave birth to a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy toward her, and they rejoiced with her” (Luke 1:57-58).

A birthday is the day that a person enters the world absolutely at the mercy of the elements, and under the care of other human beings, unable to survive without others. Parents take care of this new person, and a community helps take care of them.

Elizabeth Ann Seton’s friend, Catherine Mann Dupleix, whom she affectionately called Due, helped her after the birth of her fifth baby. Elizabeth wrote later, “This is your sweet Rebecca’s birthday—memorable day to us both. What did you not suffer for me, my Due, on that day! You were the first person who cherished and nursed the dear little being, and many, many days and nights of watching and anxiety you gave us after that.”

But there is more than one kind of giving birth.

The Old Testament reading describing the vocation of John says, “It is too little, he says, for you to be my servant, to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and restore the survivors of Israel; I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6).

St. John the Baptist was called to be a leader of many. In the same way, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton wasn’t just a mother of five. She was Mother of many—with more being added to that number to this day. She had lived with and for children before becoming a religious, and she continued to do so after founding a community of religious women to whom she was also truly “Mother.”

In 1810, she wrote that she was “at peace … in the midst of fifty children.”

As St. John the Baptist was the forerunner of Christ, her babies were the forerunners to a spiritual motherhood — a motherhood that now includes each of us. “I am a mother encompassed by many children of different dispositions… bound to love, instruct, and provide for the happiness of all.”

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Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II, The Fatima Family Handbook and What Pope Francis Really Said, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He lives in Atchison, Kansas, with his wife, April, and their nine children.