Birthdays by Rev. Michaël Merle
Reported by John-Peter Gernaat
This talk delivered on Sunday 18 September 2022 was structured into four segments.
Each segment will consider one of the reasons that Jehovah’s Witnesses present for not celebrating birthdays and offer the possibility to reflect on them and see another perspective. In this talk we hope to discover our religious, spiritual, human reason for celebrating a birthday. We will also look at how this has been expressed differently over the centuries.
Birthday celebrations have pagan roots, they predate Christianity:
It is difficult to know when the human being, in their culture, began marking a particular day in the span of a year, whether that culture used a lunar or a solar determination for the duration of a year, but we have early records of human cultures marking transitions in life. The transition into adulthood has been an important celebration for many early cultures. These celebrations were marked with an initiation into a new way of being within the social entity of the family, tribe or clan. The rituals in time often became religious in nature. In other words, these initiations marked a reconnection to one’s source. Thus, we know that human beings have in some way marked the passage of time in the life of the individual for a very long time.
If we look at one early culture, the Sumerian culture, they marked birthdays, not by noting the position of the sun, but by recording the position of the constellations in the night sky. They recognised the Cosmic Script in the stars of the night sky and, for them, they felt that the connection of the human being to the cosmic picture could be determined in the night sky. The Sumerians identified each constellation with a particular aspect of the Divine and therefore, they thought, that being born under a particular constellation gifted qualities of that Divinity to the human being. They recognised the return of the constellations to the same pattern as that of one’s birth and celebrated that. Because the movement of the fixed stars in relation to the earth is the result of the earth revolving around the sun, the return of stellar patterns marked one complete revolution around the sun and therefore one solar year. The Sumerians recognised the cycles of time and celebrated these cycles of time. It enabled them to connect these cycles of passing time with stages in the maturity of the individual human being. Thus, the celebration of birthdays certain traces back to the Sumerian culture as does the connection to the astrological picture of one’s birth.
Christianity Christianised the worldview of the time and the whole world in this sense became Christian. It its therefore not necessary to reject that which predates Christianity. Christianity used the Hellenistic worldview to understand its new way of being and in that transformed the worldview into a Christian view. We can recognise this in the writings of St Paul. He was a Greek thinker and trained in Greek philosophy. He used the training and knowledge found in Greek thought to expound the Christian understanding, thereby making it accessible to Greek thinking and Greek philosophy. Some theological historians believe that Christianity was Hellenised, but it is more appropriate to recognise that Hellenism was Christianised. The substance of Greek thinking was changed by the new experience of being human – the experience of an indwelling Christ.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses recognise correctly that early Christians did not celebrate birthdays. The early Christians felt more strongly that their birth into the Christian faith overshadowed the importance of the day of their birth into the earthly world. Thus, they celebrated the day of their baptism and did so by remembering the anniversary of that day annually. The early Christian recognised that birthing is not a once-off event, but that it happens throughout our lives. It is for this reason that many people celebrate other anniversaries, such as weddings and more significantly a spiritual event such as an ordination. Anything that creates a shift in one’s life is noted and remembered in celebration in the annual cycle of time.
Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that there is only one day worthy of commemoration for Christians and this is the day of the death of Jesus:
Christianity does commemorate the death of Jesus; but the central celebration is the Resurrection of the Christ. That is the celebration of Easter. This is the New Birth of Jesus. Every Sunday becomes a representation of Easter Sunday; in fact, every day is Easter Sunday. Every morning when we awaken we celebrate living in the times of Resurrection. To that extent Easter is a birth and not a death. This birth was all important to early Christians. It is for this reason that the Christian Church – the Catholic Church at the time – remembered the birth of people into the spiritual world. This is especially true for the Saints. The name day for the Saints is the day of their death, or rather their birth as saints into the spiritual world. The tradition grew in Christianity to celebrate, not one’s birthday, but the day of the saint after whom one was named. Christians were given Christian names, the name of someone who had given their life to Christ. The name day was the day on which gifts were given to children, rather than on their birthday. In the traditional Christian calendar only three birthdays are recognised: the birth of Jesus (Christmas day), the birth of John the Baptist (24 June), and the birth of Mary the Mother of Jesus was given a celebratory day (8 September). The birthday of Mary in the Christian tradition is, however, not nearly as important as the day of her Assumption (Western Catholic Church) / Dormition (Eastern Orthodox Church). This was the day of Mary’s birth into the spiritual world. Thus, birthdays were significant for early Christians. Every death has a birth on the other side and every birth has a death in our memory of where we come from. This death of the memory of our origin is important because we need to establish a new connection to the spiritual world through our newly discovered conscious relationship to the spiritual world. Our connection to the spiritual world should therefore be a newfound connection and not merely a remembering.
We note in Christianity the tradition of the importance of birth because birth has something to do with destiny. We are born to fulfil something that was determined before birth. Therefore, the birth is significant. There can be no Baptism in the Jordan without a birth at Christmas. They are both related to the same reality – being born onto the earth in order to be born to one’s destiny. The first celebration of the early Christian Church, besides Easter, was the Baptism in the Jordan – the birth of Christ into the being of Jesus of Nazareth. Only later did the birth of Jesus become a celebration. Thus Easter – new life in the spirit – and then the Baptism – Christ’s birth onto a human being – signify the importance of birthdays to the early Christians and also the significance of their baptism, their birth into Christianity. Every day is a birthday, a day of new birth into life on earth, until the day arrives where we are born back into the spirit.
The final reason for Jehovah’s Witnesses not celebrating birthdays is that the bible does not refer to a servant of God celebrating a birthday. Two birthdays are described that have negative consequences. One is the birthday celebration that leads to the beheading of John the Baptist. However, it is important to note that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke both recognise the birth of Jesus, and Luke also the birth of John the Baptist. These births are both noted with celebration in the description in the Gospels: in Matthew the birth of Jesus is celebrated with the appearance of a Star and the Magi beginning a journey, and in Luke the birth is celebrated with the appearance of heavenly luminaries to the shepherds. The eighth day with the presentation and circumcision, the day of the birth of a boy into the Covenant of Judaism, are also recognised.
The consciousness we must carry is to understand what it is that we are celebrating. This is where we go back to the ancient Sumerian picture. For them the human being born at a particular moment according to the constellations was a reflection of the cosmos. They were celebrating that here in this person, and here in that person, were tiny reflections of the great cosmic picture. We come to recognise that our birthday is also the birth of the world in us, we carry the cosmic picture in us, not just the cosmic picture of the night on which we were born, but the whole of the cosmos, the macrocosm expressed in the microcosm. We are small depictions of the great and mighty cosmic script. When celebrating a birthday, we are not so much celebrating the past, we are celebrating the future. We are celebrating the unfolding of the cosmic picture; the taking of the next step. A birthday celebrates that we are somewhere on the journey, it does not mark the end of the journey, it marks a conscious moment so that the journey can continue. That is the point of a Christian birthday, not to mark what was, it is to mark what is to come. It is to mark what can unfold because the individual has a foundation made up of the years that have passed. Birthday celebrations should not be celebrations of the past but celebrations of the future. A new cycle can begin! That is what becomes significant to celebrate a birthday as a Christian.
We can take what was a non-Christian tradition and understand its desire to link to what Christianity does bring us: resurrection, new life, new beginning, new hope, new step, new stage. We are not celebrating the old, we are celebrating the new. A birthday marks possibility. It also allows us to reflect for a moment on why we are here, what it is that we still have to do, what can we do now that we could not do before, what can we do that is new, how we can overcome that which has not been working for us in our lives. We can therefore enter into a time of preparation for each celebration.
We mark ways in which we recognise new ways of being. These are all births (baptism, confirmation, graduation, marriage, ordination) and it is important to mark them for ourselves. We can say: “Yes, I am on a journey, and yes, I know what it means to take new step.” That is the essence of birthdays in a Christian way, being conscious of our future.
From William Wordsworth; Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood
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