“It would be good to say a prayer to the Lord on your birthday. You should not just read it, but feel it”
Bishop Bogolep (Goncharenko)
Each year I receive birthday greetings on the Internet and in person, trying to understand what I should be happy about and what I am actually congratulated on. Good wishes, sometimes mixed with sadness in happy eyes, and staying in the spotlight: all this does not obscure the inner feeling that there are deeper meanings in the occasion. After all, if you look into it, I receive congratulations on the fact that the last moment of my earthly life is one more year closer to me.
Thus, the attitude to one’s birthday is an important topic. May an Orthodox person celebrate their birthday? It turns out that this question is very popular among the Orthodox and in the wider Christian community. Some Christian denominations reject this celebration as a pagan practice; some recall the sad events related to the birthday of Herod, who killed the great John the Baptist; and others just remember the past and share their plans for the future with family and friends in a quiet, sometimes childishly naive way.
Saint Leo the Great writes, “If the Creator Himself had not come down to have fellowship with His creation, and if He had not lifted human decrepitude by His Nativity to a new foundation, then from Adam (Romans 5:14) until the end times death would have reigned and an insurmountable curse would persist on all men, for the law of birth alone is enough to cause destruction for all.“
“Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me,” the Holy King David prophesies. Reflecting upon his words, St. Athanasius the Great remarks, “The original intention of God was that we should not be born through marriage and decay. The transgression of the commandment brought about marriage because of Adam’s iniquity, i.e. because of his deviation from the law given to him by God. So, all those born of Adam are conceived in sin, falling under the curse of the forefather… David shows how human nature first fell into sin through the crime of Eve, and how birth was cursed.” Holy Righteous Job exclaims in his anguish, “Let the day perish wherein I was born, and the night in which it was said, There is a man child conceived” (Job 3:3).
If you are serious enough about your faith, you might have this very attitude to your birthday. For a neophyte who is raptured by the grace into the heavenly bliss, there is not much that is interesting in this world: everything is mundane; the birthday is some superfluous worldly commotion, an insignificant and inconsequential day.
On the other hand, it is not a mere coincidence that the Church singled out three special feasts to honor this day as such (two of them are among the twelve major holidays): the Birthday of the Son of God (born of an earthly Mother, but without an earthly father, which is the only case in earthly history), His Mother Mary (born, like all humans, of earthly parents, but then becoming the Mother of the Son of God, which is also unique), but also the Birthday of an “ordinary” man (born like all of us) – John the Baptist, who was the greatest among those born to women, as Christ said about him.
Here is what the Righteous John of Kronstadt has to say, “What is a birthday or a name day? Why do we celebrate it? The day of taking office is much more remarkable! – a layman once said. And I’ll say: this is ridiculous! What is more important, I shall ask you: is it the beginning of life in this world or the commencement of office? I would think that the beginning of life is much more important, because if you weren’t born, you wouldn’t even be in office. No, it is worthy and righteous to celebrate birthdays or name days: they are also the days on which you take office and start working for the King of Heaven. Even Herod, who was notorious for his atrocities, recognized the need to celebrate his birthday. All people honor this special day: the day of their birth, the day of their coming out of non-existence. If you don’t celebrate it, or rather don’t honor it, then you are ungrateful to the Creator for the priceless gift of life and unable to appreciate it. We solemnly celebrate the Nativity of the Lord Jesus Christ, our God and Savior, His Blessed Mother, John the Forerunner and Baptist, the days of the Apostles, prophets, hierarchs-martyrs, holy monks, and all saints. So, your birthday is an important milestone, because it was on this day that God granted you sentience, and your name day should remind you that you have been given a Christian name and have been listed among those who are being saved in Jesus Christ” (St. John of Kronstadt, Thoughts on the Church, Patriot Publishing House, 1992, p. 115-116).
Therefore, our birthday should be a day of gratitude to the merciful Creator who gave us life and opportunity to enter the Celestial Jerusalem via the Church.
Just as a father rejoices at the birth of his son, so God rejoices at his sons and daughters. Every man who appears in the world becomes a natural-born child of the Creator in Jesus Christ.
It would be great if you said a prayer to the Lord on your birthday, and it is important not just to read it, but to feel it. It will make the new year of your life full of new spiritual meanings. “O Lord my God, the Ruler of all things visible and invisible. All the days and years of my life depend on Your holy will. Thank You, O Merciful Father, for allowing me to enjoy one more year; I know that I am not worthy of this grace because of my sins, but You granted it to me because of Your unspeakable love for humankind. Extend Your mercies to me, a sinner; make my life a life of virtue, tranquility, health, peace with all my kindred, and harmony with all my neighbors. Give me the abundance of earthly fruits and all that I need to meet my needs. First of all, cleanse my conscience, and strengthen me on the way to salvation, so that after many years of living in the world, I may enter into eternal life, and be a worthy heir to your Heavenly Kingdom. O Lord, bless the year which I begin, and the rest of my life. Amen.“
So it turns out that Life is a leap from the Wide Way (often leading to the dead-end of hell) to the unknown, where there are no signs of social conventions, where priorities and values are different, where things are the other way around. The Apostle Paul says that the things that are regarded as “high”, “prestigious”, “desirable” are in fact trash or, more literally, “dung” (σκύβαλον). Our life path should not run through this manure. Perhaps, we need birthdays to get out of it. Jesus disrupts the setup of our everyday lives and reminds us of more important things. It is not for nothing that there is a motto at the entrance to the archondarikon (a guesthouse for pilgrims) of every monastery on Athos, “If you can die before you die, you will not die when you die“.
Bishop Bogolep of Alexandria and Svetlovodsk