Saints Don’t Do Birthdays

Feeling miserable and forgotten because nobody remembered your birthday? Cheer up! It might not mean you’re unpopular. Maybe you’re just holy.

Because as far as I can tell, saints don’t do birthdays. There are plenty of stories about miraculous births, but I don’t recall a single one involving a birthday celebration. The one birthday everyone celebrates, that of Jesus, is a happy event for us, but not so much for him. We also don’t know when it really was – we only celebrate Christmas on December 25 because in ancient times that was the winter solstice. The Sun’s return was seen as the rebirth of the Sun god.

In fact, most saints’ feasts are celebrated on the day they died; or occasionally when their remains were found, or as in the case of my own patron, Saint Jerome, when their stolen bones were installed in a new church. With Jerome, who was deemed a cardinal centuries after his death for translating the Bible into Latin, his remains were translated (as the technical term is) from his tomb in his abbey in Bethlehem to the Vatican, where they molder still. (The practice, called furtum sacrum, “holy theft,” was allowed in the Middle Ages,if the right people were bribed, there was reason – usually a reported dream – to think the saint wanted more publicity, and if indeed, the cult flourished with attendant miracles in the new location.)

And there’s biblical authority for this birthday bitterness, too. The great teacher Origen said:

But Scripture also declares that one himself who is born, whether male or female, is not “clean from filth although his life is of one day.” And that you may know that there is something great in this… not one from all the saints is found to have celebrated a festive day or a great feast on the day of his birth. No one is found to have had joy on the day of the birth of his son or daughter. Only sinners rejoice over that kind of birthday. For indeed we find in the Old Testament, Pharaoh, King of Egypt, celebrating the day of his birth with a festival, and in the New Testament, Herod. However, both of them stained the festival of his birth with human blood. For the Pharoah killed “the chief baker”, Herod, the holy prophet John “in prison”. But the saints not only do not celebrate a festival on their birth days, but, filled, with the Holy Spirit, they curse that day. (Origen, Homily on Leviticus 8.2(2) Emphasis added.)

He goes on to give examples from Jeremiah and Job and the Psalms of passages bemoaning birthdays, and cites the Law on maternal uncleanness to nail the point in. So it seems that birth was seen by the Early Church as kind of a fall from grace. Perhaps Origen and the gnostics, who felt that angels who fell might incarnate in human flesh, thought it literally was one.

We should not regret the day we came into this world, but every day that passes in which we do not strive to make it better. For if birth is a fall, then death is a return. All the authorities say that our birth into the afterlife should be the one worth celebrating.

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