A significant birthday in our household today, even of Biblical proportions. And it’s not mine.
However, as Shirley Bassey – now 80, would you believe – contends: “You don’t get older, you get better.”
But why are birthdays so important? Why all the fuss? I’m reasonably sure that Jesus never sang “Happy birthday” or its cultural equivalent.
In fact, there are only two birthday parties singled out in the Bible – and we would readily turn down invites for each.
The first was for Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt, the very one who needed Joseph to interpret his dreams. So we read in Genesis 40:20: “Now the third day was Pharaoh’s birthday, and he gave a feast for all his officials.”
In fact, the Jews had a thing about birthdays. So we read in the prologue to Job that “his sons used to hold feasts in their homes on their birthdays, and they would invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them.” (Job 1:4)
These sound like happy family bunfights. However, Job himself wasn’t too keen, for we read that “when a period of feasting had run its course, Job would make arrangements for them to be purified.” A kind of spiritual detox.
Then later in their history birthdays reminded the Jews about their oppressors, the Babylonians. For in this alien culture birthdays had an intimate link with astrology and horoscopes.
Even in their dreadful captivity the Jews refused to disown loyalty to the God of Israel. He alone – and not these pretentious rivals – orders our future, decides our days. “Which of their gods foretold this and proclaimed to us the former things?’ (Isaiah 43:9).
The next culture to come along and threaten was from Greece. And here again the Jews were also very wary, even as they spoke Greek and had their scriptures translated into this pagan language.
For the Greeks believed that each person had a protective spirit that attended the person’s birth and thereafter watched over him. But who needs a protective spirit when the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth, promises to keeps watch over his people?
Which brings us to the second birthday party. This lavish event was thrown by Herod the tetrarch, of all people.
“On his birthday Herod gave a banquet for his high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee.” (Mark 6:21) So Mark recounts in some detail how John the Baptist was killed for his prophetic witness at this birthday party.
No wonder then that the early Christians gave birthdays a miss.
For what it’s worth the third century theologian and spoilsport, Origen, thought that Christians should not only refrain from celebrating their birthdays, but should look on them with disgust.
But that’s typical of Origen – a total ascetic who was disowned by the Catholic church for his false teaching. And for good reason, for the Gospel is good news of great joy, a cause for much celebration.
And of course, Jesus loved parties – even if it gave his critics ammunition. As Jesus himself tells us “Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” (Luke 7:34)
Not only did Jesus often go to parties (and make sure that they didn’t run out of wine), he taught that the Kingdom of God is true celebration, the best of all banquets, to which everyone is invited.
It is the Biblical theologian William Barclay who suggests: “There are two great days in a person’s life – the day we are born and the day we discover why.”
It is Jesus who calls everyone to celebrate – even when it is just one lost sinner who repents, when we realise why we were born. And the reason? “To love God and to enjoy him for ever.”
As the woman on finding her lost coin invites her neighbours to celebrate, so Jesus teaches: “In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:10).
Just one sinner. To know we are loved and valued simply for being ourselves is worth celebrating, such is the grace of God.
And such is this grace that Miss Bassey may in fact be right. Through the ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit in each disciple, “we all .. are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18). So let’s party!
Happy birthday, Jacqui! Your special day.