The celebration of birthdays is common enough. But who among us celebrates our conception? We may presume that the custom never arose because, until recently, the exact day of conception was never quite known. In our modern era, I’ve had friends argue with their doctors about the date (or argue about their due date, which is based on presumed conception.). I’ve heard an expression, a common response to someone who proclaims ignorance or forgetfulness for their whereabouts or activities: “Were you with yourself when it happened?” Nonetheless, some doctors think they know more than the women who were there when the act occurred.
I live in Philadelphia, where our home team, the Philadelphia Eagles, overcame great odds to win the SuperBowl this past February. I fully expect the local news to run a report on or about October 29 about a spike in births they’ll describe as “SuperBowl Babies.” Other than that, only in literature is conception occasionally mentioned. The character Fenchurch in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series was so named by her parents, readers are told, because she was conceived in the Fenchurch Street railway station ticket line.
We mail (or email) birth announcements. The Annunciation holiday is unique in celebrating a conception announcement. Delivered by an archangel, no less.
Hail, Mary! hail, Mary!
Queen of grace, Mother of mercy;
Hail, Mary, in manner surpassing,
Fount of our health, source of our joy.
To thee we, night and day,
Erring children of Adam and Eve,
Lift our voice in supplication,
In groans and grief and tears.
Bestow upon us, thou Root of gladness,
Since thou art the cup of generous graces,
The faith of John, and Peter, and Paul,
With the wings of Ariel on the heights of the clouds.
Vouchsafe to us, thou golden branch,
A mansion in the Realm of peace,
Rest from the perils and stress of waves,
Beneath the shade of the fruit of thy womb, Jesu.
This poem comes to us from the Carmina Gadelica, a collection of Scottish oral traditions transcribed by Alexander Carmicael in the late 19th Century. The opening line, from the Gospel of Luke, we’ve heard too many times to count; at first it seems like a lazy plagiarism of the classic prayer. The poem starts weakly. To desire health and joy is commonplace, if vague. Similarly, the second and third stanzas are mostly boilerplate folk-theology. Old Testament and saintly references overflow Carmichael’s collection. The third stanza grabs our attention with the appeal to Ariel. (Most of us–myself included–only know of Ariel in Shakespeare’s The Tempest; I had to research it.) This Ariel reference—a rare allusion for an Angel—suggests an intermingling of the oral tradition with the scholarly. How odd!
The fourth stanza holds all the charm. Abstractions are replaced with very real dangers. This is clearly one of Carmichael’s collections from the Scottish Isles. A coastal people would know the perils of waves. It’s almost as if the poet had finished spouting Sunday School platitudes and could finally get down to his darkest fears—the Atlantic Ocean or the North Sea.
This prayer to be kept safe from the “stress of waves” also calls to mind a Celtic prayer common in the middle ages: “From the fury of the Northmen, O Lord deliver us.” Likewise, an anonymous poem from the 9th Century or so more ironically declares
“Bitter is the wind to-night
It tosses the ocean’s white hair:
To-night I fear not the fierce warriors of Norway
Coursing on the Irish Sea” (Kuno Meyer, “The Viking Terror” in Selections From Ancient Irish Poetry).
This respect and fear for the waves is the anguish voiced by John Millington Synge’s play Riders To The Sea. His 1904 one-act play centers upon an Aran Island mother who has lost six sons to drowning. And even our own Navy Hymn has lyrics echoing the very term “peril.” The Navy Hymn (“Eternal Father Strong To Save“) implores God to “hear us when we cry to Thee, / For those in peril on the sea.” Some things haven’t changed. The 2016 Census of Fatal Occupational Industries lists Fishing as the second most dangerous job in America. (Only logging is more dangerous.) It’s something to remember on our next seaside vacation.
The poem ends by returning to borrow from the classic Hail, Mary prayer. Jesus is recognized as the fruit of Mary’s womb. The poet seizes the metaphor and runs with it. If Jesus is her fruit, he is also the tree—unexpected synecdoche—and Mary is his golden bough. What the poet wants most is to be in the shade of Jesus, to be cooled and refreshed by His shadow.
The Annunciation is a Marian feast that really celebrates Jesus.
For fun, I’ve back-dated a due-date calendar to estimate the date of my conception. But I think I’ll stick with celebrating my birthday. We mortals can celebrate birthdays. Otherwise, let’s remember the conception of God.