Why celebrate birthdays?
For children, this is a fairly simple question. Through high school, age is a huge factor in defining oneself. It determines what grade you’re in at school (albeit with a few exceptions), it highlights various developmental stages, and it dictates various legal rights too. I think 25 is the last one that has any major impact on the average American – the age you can rent a car without any age-based insurance cost penalties. Other than that, though, by the time you’re in your 20’s there isn’t really anything to say about birthdays other than the fact that it’s been an additional year since you were born. And a lot of people tend to stop wanting those additional years around that time!
Children love parties, and so do teenagers, and, actually, so do adults. Birthdays are great opportunities to throw parties and to especially honor someone for a day. I don’t know of any birthday celebrations in the Bible, but the very fact that peoples’ ages are marked in years shows that they were at least aware of their birthdays. If and how they celebrated them, though, is beyond my knowledge.
Throughout the Old Testament we see many different events in the course of the life of the people-ground of Israel being turned into annual celebrations: the Passover, the Pentecost, the Day of Atonement, Purim, and so on. In the New Testament also, Jesus institutes the New Passover (in the Holy Eucharist), and we see St. Paul celebrating Pentecost with other Christians. Considering the very word ‘Pentecost’ refers to its position 50 days after the Passover/Easter, it’s more than likely that Christians were celebrating that too.
But within 200 years, Christians were celebrating the birthdays of Jesus and John the Baptist. Why? Mainly because those are important gospel events in the story of our salvation. Jesus’ birth in particular is an amazing event to ponder, considering that God became flesh in the most humble way imaginable. Though if you want to get technical, he really first entered into the word 9 months earlier when Mary conceived him. And yes, that day is also celebrated: it’s the feast of the Annunciation (so called because it’s when the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she was chosen to bear the Christ).
Celebrating these events in the course of our salvation is one thing, but what about celebrating days related to us? Might that be a little frivolous? Let’s take one step closer. Within 100 years of the Church’s earthly existence, holidays started being set aside to commemorate the death of certain famous godly Christians. These saints days were described as their “birthdays into heaven.” The thinking at the time was that since these people lived their lives in such a way that they’re excellent examples to others, they’re worthy of being remembered by those of us still in this life for our encouragement and edification. It’s like taking the “great cloud of witnesses” in Hebrews and adding to it people from the post-biblical years. And choosing their death-days is a natural time to remember them, rather than picking any other day arbitrarily.
Finally, what about us? Is there a Christian reason to observe our own birthdays? I mean, it’s not as though we’re all confirmed great examples to everyone else. Maybe some of us will be some day, but in the meantime, how can we justify allowing ourselves to be so propped by others every year? Birthdays, too, I would argue, are a part of the gospel narrative in application to our lives.
For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be. (Psalm 139:13-16)
Our very creation is an act of God! Each of us was individually, intimately, and intentionally created by God the Father of all. One might argue that our conception-day should be just as important, then, as our birthday. Certainly; and some cultures do measure age from conception instead of birth. But birthdays is when the product is revealed – when God’s work “in the secret place” is brought out into the open for all to see, behold, and love.
Celebrating birthdays, then, can be very theologically significant. We were created individually, so it is acceptable to celebrate that. Our culture, however, does often overdo the individuality thing to the point where we sometimes are encouraged to worship the birthday boy or girl. That can go too far. But remember we’re a New Covenant people, not Old. When things go bad our God-given mission is not destroy them, but to redeem them. How amazing would it be if we Christians infused our normally-secular birthday celebrations with religious significance?
I leave you with two starter examples from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer (page 830).
|O God, our times are in your hand:
Look with favor, we pray, on your servant ___ as (s)he begins another year. Grant (s)he may grow in wisdom and grace, and strengthen his/her trust in your goodness all the days of his/her life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
|Watch over thy child, O Lord, as his/her days increase; bless and guide him/her wherever (s)he may be. Strengthen him/her when (s)he stands; comfort him/her when discouraged or sorrowful; raise him/her up if (s)he fall; and in his/her heart may your peace which passes all understanding abide all the days of his/her life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.|