So today is my birthday, but according to some Christians it would be a sin to celebrate it. Are they right? This belief is held by Jehovah’s Witnesses, a self-described Christian denomination that denies the Trinity and grew out of Charles Taze Russell’s “Bible Student Movement” of the late 19th century. According to them, “God’s word reports unfavorably about birthday celebrations and to shun these.” (Reasoning from the Scriptures, 68-69). But do the JW’s have any good arguments that would persuade a Catholic like me to put away the birthday cake this year? Let’s take a look:
Argument #1: The only birthday’s that are celebrated in the Bible are of evil men; therefore Christians should not emulate this practice.
The two evil men being referred to are the Pharaoh Joseph served in the book of Genesis and King Herod, the Roman client king of Judea. There’s no doubt these men were immoral especially since after their described birthdays they executed people (Herod executed John the Baptist and Pharaoh executed his chief baker). But what is this argument supposed to prove? It wasn’t the birthdays which made these men evil because the Bible never describes the celebrations as being a wicked or evil. It was merely the people being celebrated that were the problem.
Argument #2: Good people in the Bible (especially Jesus) never celebrate their birthdays. Therefore, Christians should not celebrate either.
This objection would be more accurate if it said “The Bible does not record good people celebrating their birthdays.” The author of John’s gospel says Jesus did many things which were not written in it (John 21:25). Just because something is not recorded in the Bible does not mean it did not happen. Also, just because a celebration is not recorded in Scripture does not mean it is bad. After all, no one in the Bible celebrates wedding anniversaries, graduation parties, or bridal showers, but many JW’s do.
Finally, JW’s claim that Christians should only emulate beliefs and customs found in the Bible, but there is no Biblical text which supports this idea (a kind of “sola-scriptura” on steroids) and so this belief subsequently contradicts itself.
Argument #3: Birthdays have a pagan origin and should not be celebrated by Christians.
If JW’s want to use to this argument, then why do many exchange wedding rings? This practice was common in ancient Rome due to the superstitious belief that a special love vein (or nerve) ran from that ring finger to the heart. Some JW’s argue that wedding rings come from marriage, an institution which God established, and is therefore an acceptable tradition. But clearly God also established birth through natural design and so celebrating it would not be inherently wrong either. As to the pagan objection, the Church has always taught that the good or neutral things in non-Christian culture can be “baptized” and used for Christian purposes. Pope John Paul II wrote:
“Through inculturation the Church makes the Gospel incarnate in different cultures . . . She transmits to them her own values, at the same time taking the good elements that already exist in them and renewing them from within.” (Redemptoris Missio, 52)
JW’s have a point in that if birthdays become a celebration of how great a person is and are narcissistic, then that would be unbiblical. But of course, that behavior would be wrong any day of the year. Instead, celebrating birthdays is a way to thank God for blessing us with the previous year, and to be mindful of how he would want us to live our life in whatever part of the next year he gives us. Paul writes in Romans 14: 4-5 “Who are you to pass judgment on someone else’s servant? . . . For one person considers one day more important than another, while another person considers all days alike. Let everyone be fully persuaded in his own mind.”
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to enjoy the rest of my birthday since I am at least persuaded in my own mind. Oh and in case I ever forget you’re special day, “Happy Birthday.” “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice in it and be glad!” (Psalm 118:24)