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Happy Birthday, Jesus

Jim Bourdeau has the same cake for his birthday every year—Lemon with Cream Cheese Frosting. The first year I made it I was seventeen, spending my first summer away from home as the baker at Big Lake Youth Camp in Sisters, Oregon, where Jim worked maintenance.

His daughter Tammi, who was the Horsemanship Director at the time, came up to me one day after lunch.

“It’s my dad’s birthday next week,” she said softly and with no nonsense.

“He likes a Lemon Cake with Cream Cheese frosting. Can you make that or should I pick up a cake in town?”

“Yes,” I said, without fully understanding what she was asking.

“Yes?” Tammi replied in query, unsure which of her questions I was answering.

“Yes, I can make one,” I clarified, with slightly less uncertainty in my voice.

I had never made a lemon cake before. At the time, I couldn’t recall ever eating a lemon cake before. The cake selection in Hawaii, where I grew up, had never seemed peculiar until this very moment: Dobash Cake, Chantilly Cake, Haupia, Lilikoi, Guava—these are the cakes of my childhood. Yes, we had chocolate and vanilla cake too, but it’s always so startling when the ways you are different are unknowingly pointed out to you. And who has ever considered that the way they are different is cake?

I honestly don’t remember much else about that first time I made Jim’s cake, beyond my fear. But it’s been eighteen years now, eighteen lemon cakes, eighteen batches of cream cheese frosting. Last July, Jim turned seventy-two, and though I had just moved away from Oregon, I flew back to crack some eggs and cream some butter. Some years, I candy lemons for the top. Some years, there are shaved white chocolate curls, usually round, sometimes square. Once, I had to work on his birthday, so a friend drove the cake three hours from Portland to Jim’s house for me.

He still acts surprised, like he doesn’t know it’s coming, and a couple of days later, I always receive a hand-written note or charmingly awkward email thanking me.

As he gets older, Jim has started taking a nap every afternoon. He asks his son-in-law Bob for help with the chores around the family farm that require more heavy lifting. A few years ago, Jim had some health scares, so he and his wife Julie have switched to a largely vegan diet—no meat, no eggs, no dairy. These days, it seems even more beautifully obscene to watch him tuck in to his allowed birthday confection.

When summer starts ebbing into July, I begin to dream about Jim’s cake, and all these years later, it’s still pure privilege to be part of this liturgy of his life.

Adults rarely bother with the party. It's too much work, and what if no one comes? But to a kid, the laboring toward joy is never confused with work, and they trust that if there is a party, their friends and family will come. John Cal

For most of us, as we get older, it gets more uncomfortable to be celebrated, to be made a fuss over, to allow ourselves to be loved. For adults, so often birthdays are about bucket lists, how far we’ve come, what we’ve conquered. Somewhere along the way we learn we have to earn our love, earn our celebration and joy. But somehow Jim Bourdeau leans into us loving him, his wife Julie fussing about what he’s going to have for dinner, Tammi spending the year attentive for a present idea.

As kids, we can’t accomplish much—walking, brushing our teeth, maybe even spelling our name, sure, but we can’t have jobs, pay rent, or have drivers’ licenses. A kid accomplishing nothing beyond simply being alive allows themselves to be celebrated because they have not yet been tainted by worth through achievement. They have to let someone else buy their balloons, hang their streamers, and drive them to Chuck E. Cheese. And in doing so, they are intimately experiencing what it’s like to be taken care of.

Adults rarely bother with the party. It’s too much work, and what if no one comes? But to a kid, the laboring toward joy is never confused with work, and they trust that if there is a party, their friends and family will come.

That sentiment is my favorite part of Jesus’s birthday: that the all-powerful, fully capable, well accomplished God of the Universe in his laboring to bring us joy decided, for his birthday, to make himself helpless. He decided to trust that someone, his friends, his family—that we—would show up and take care of him.

How startling to become human, to be human. I can imagine an omniscient Jesus thinking, “Hmmm, I’ve never been born before.” Baseball, swimming, his first sunburn; I wonder how many sensations were new and surprising to an all knowing, eternal God? So often we see his birthday beautifully veneered though stained glass or vellum, but I love considering that at the moment he became human, perhaps more like us than he had ever been before, what he needed most was to be wrapped up from the cold, to be rocked, sung to, and fed.

So happy birthday, Jesus. As we share in this merriment, may we remember that in his weakness, he allowed himself to be cared for, that he knew and trusted that someone would show up, and that we did.

When I think of it, even now, it feels like my own fifth birthday. Even with my best effort, I couldn’t manage to blow my candles out. And when I was at my most tired and hopeless, worried, and ashamed, my friends began to help. Then, magically, against my better judgment, it didn’t feel at all like they were trying to steal my fun or my glory, but that with their help, there would always be reason to celebrate.

The featured photograph was taken by Melanie Waldman at Nashville’s Hymnmoot—a celebration very like a birthday party.

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