Thanks to Jesus, all birthdays are special

By | June 24, 2009

We do celebrate feast days of saints, but those are usually marked on the day of his or her death — celebrating their passing from this world into eternal life. (The feast of the martyrdom of John the Baptist is Aug. 29.) Since many saints, like John, were martyred — their feast days also mark the act of faith and sacrifice by which they glorified God.

No celebrations

In Jewish tradition – from which the early church grew — birthdays were not usually celebrated either. And, as we see from Luke’s Gospel (Lk 2:21), while one’s birth was important, it was far more important that a baby boy be circumcised — made a son of the covenant. This was done on his eighth day of life — when he also received his name. Luke’s also tells us (1:39-63) that this was when John formally received the name given him by the angel (1:13).

In the Bible, birthdays are rarely noted. And when they are, it is not often under good circumstances. In the Old Testament, the only birthday directly mentioned is that of Pharaoh, when the Israelites were slaves in Egypt (Gn 40:20-22). It was on this day that Pharaoh had his chief baker executed, just as Joseph had predicted when interpreting the man’s dream.

In the New Testament, it was on Herod Antipas’ birthday that he had John the Baptist beheaded, at the request of Salome.

Another birthday

The only other birthday (besides Jesus’, of course) hinted at in the Bible, was related to Job’s first 10 children, who were all killed in a windstorm while eating together. While our translation of the Book of Job doesn’t mention it as a birthday celebration, some versions of the account translate verse four in chapter one as saying that the siblings often gathered together for their birthday feasts and died during one of them.

So celebrating birthdays were not high points in biblical history. In most ancient societies, only the birthdays of kings were usually remembered. This is, of course, why Jesus’ birth was eventually celebrated as a feast, starting in the fourth century, when the emperors of Rome embraced the Christian faith. Around that time, the birth of John the Baptist was also honored — since it was clearly indicated in Luke’s Gospel as tied to the mystery of the Incarnation.

The third birthday

The third birthday celebrated in the liturgical calendar is that of Mary, the Mother of God. It is honored on Sept. 8, exactly nine months after the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Mary’s feast dates to about the sixth century, when teachings about her Immaculate Conception began to be honored. The roots of Mary’s birthday feast trace to the Eastern churches, under the title of the Conception of St. Anne. (It was not until 1854 that Mary’s Immaculate Conception was declared a dogma of the church.)

The tradition of marking the birthdays of everyday people really only became common as Western legal systems developed, and it became important to have an official birthday for legal status. What first became common to celebrate was not a birthday, but one’s name day.

During the Middle Ages (fifth to 16th centuries), as the cult of saints developed, people began to celebrate the feast of the saint whose name they shared. So if your name was Thomas, you would celebrate the feast of St. Thomas on July 3 as your name day. Eventually the customs of a party with special foods, and even gifts, surrounded this name day celebration.

So whether we celebrate birthdays, name days, or both, we are participating in a tradition that should remind us of Jesus’ birthday, of the saints who now experience him in glory, and of our coming birthdays into heaven. There we shall continue the song of the angels at Jesus’ birth: “Glory to God in the highest.”

Sources: www.catholicculture.org; en.wikipedia,org; “Catechism of the Catholic Church”; Judaism 101 at www.jewfaq.org; and the “Dictionary of Catholic Devotions.”

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