Not too long ago, I read an article online about someone who had listened to a particular radio show. On the radio that day was a call-in show where you could talk to someone about your problems. We’re pretty familiar with these types of shows and they come in all sorts of flavors: Dr. Laura (general life problems), Dave Ramsey (money problems), even “The Love Doctor” (you get the idea). Well this particular show had a caller complain about no one celebrating her birthday. She didn’t get a card, a call, a cake…nothing. And she was upset, crying even, because no one remembered her birthday.
The host, instead of consoling her, went an unexpected direction. The host proceeded to tell the caller something similar to the following:
“Why should they care what day you were born on? Why should you be treated special? You didn’t do anything of any worth on that day other than pop out of the birth canal! And why should anyone be forced to remember the day you popped out? It is incredibly selfish of you to expect everyone to focus their attention on you for a day you didn’t do anything on! If anyone should be thanked, praised, and showered with gifts, it should be your mother who had to endure extreme pain for many hours just so you could start breathing….Who cares if it’s your birthday?”
And reading that, I was initially somewhat offended. But after thinking about it, it started to make a lot of sense to me. We have turned birthdays into a special day where a person is honored, but for what? What did we do? And furthermore, if someone else doesn’t remember our birthday, we get offended, hurt even. So if a birthday isn’t all that important, then what is? Well, this got me thinking about the Bible. Do you ever see any birthdays celebrated in the Bible? There are only three: (1) Pharaoh’s birthday where the chief baker is hanged, (2) Herod the Great’s birthday where John the Baptist is killed, and (3) Jesus’ actual birth.
I put Jesus’ birth in the list, even though I don’t think that Jesus’ birth as recorded in the Gospel narrative is a “birthday” celebration, but rather just a celebration of the arrival of the Messiah. We certainly don’t see angels proclaiming to shepherds in the fields every year of Jesus’ life. Also notice that the Bible does not give a specific day that Jesus was born. If it was so important to remember his birthday, God would have given it to us just like he gave the Israelites the dates to remember other important events of deliverance like Passover. We also don’t see a record in the scriptures of the early Christians celebrating Jesus’ birth. They had a calendar, and they had important days, but we are not given the date of Jesus’ birth. Why? Because his “birthday” was not the focus, but rather, his arrival as the Messiah. So I’m going to take it off the list of birthdays recorded in the Bible and now we’re left with two birthdays, and what is recorded about them? Well they weren’t happy occasions. Why do we see this pattern in the Bible?
To answer that question, we need to understand Jewish custom in the Second Temple Era. To a Jew, the day of birth is dwarfed in significance to the day of death. How do we see this in scripture? The biggest example is the day the Messiah died is memorialized forever in the Lord’s Supper (Communion) celebration*. Unlike his birth, in which we were not commanded anything, God is very specific to give us a memorial celebration of Jesus’ death. We’re told the day to celebrate it and even how. Why? Because the day of a person’s death is better than the day of birth. Scripture says this loudly in Ecclesiastes:
“A good name is better than fine perfume, and the day of death better than the day of birth.” (Ecc 7:1, NIV)
These seem like two different statements, but I believe they are linked. And this conclusion is true for anyone. The fact is that we all come into this world the exact same: naked and without anything. But we are all free to choose how we will live our lives. The day of death, on the other hand, is different for everyone. Unless you kill yourself, you don’t get to choose how you will die, but on the day of your death, you’ve made decisions that made you into the person you are at that last breath. And in that last moment, you can either walk from this life and into the next with confidence, or shame. But either way, the person you become at the end is your choice. And so we see the two statements in the passage (a good name, and the day of death) are linked. Having a good name (e.g. you spent your life well) is better than riches and pleasures, which just like fine perfume, are blown away by the wind.
Ecclesiastes comments on this again, but in a different way:
“The end of a matter is better than its beginning, and patience is better than pride.” (Ecc 7:8, NIV)
I love that. The end is better than the beginning. So if that’s true, then why do we fear death so much? Even Christians who have no reason to fear, find themselves trembling at the idea of anyone they love dying. It’s hard, but I think that perhaps we’ve had things mixed up. We should be looking forward to the finish line. No marathon runner who yearns for the prize stops to celebrate the start of the race every mile! No, the runner pushes on, envisioning crossing that finish line to hold up their hands and say “YES! I did it!” We shouldn’t celebrate birthdays, but rather deathdays of faithful believers in the Messiah who have finished the race and won the prize. That’s something worth celebrating and remembering year after year!
Think about it.
Peace to you,
*Yes, it was the same day. Remember, Jewish days start at night, and a day goes from sunset to sunset. So when Jesus took the Passover that night and died the next day at 3:00pm, it was the same day.