Last Friday, I celebrated my 24th birthday. According to the Atheist Wife, I can no longer claim to be in my early 20s. I am middle 20s now, which means that someday I will be old. She would not let me feel old even for a second. She is, after all, 11 years older than I am and thinks that my complaints about age are completely ridiculous. She, on the other hand, has the wisdom of age to back her up.
What It Used To Be
This is my first birthday since deciding that I would no longer be a practicing Christian, a person with no religious practice. It feels a bit different, even if only slightly. Unlike previous birthdays, I have no “birthday blessing” to look forward to. No priest will make the sign of the cross above my head and rest a hallowed hand on my skull, his fingers and palm enveloping me, pushing me down as if to say, “Age means nothing. All meaning is beneath your feet.”
My father was not the first priest to give me a birthday blessing (he was priested when I was about three), but he was the one who had the duty the most times. For 15 years, he stood with me at the altar on October 24 and said the words I will never forget:
“Many happy returns on the day of your birth; may sunshine and gladness be given; may God in his mercy prepare you on earth for a more beautiful birthday in Heaven.”
It gives me chills to think those words. His voice is unbelievably clear in the ear of my mind even though I have not heard his voice in over a year (could it be two years? My God, how long?).
I think people need ways to commemorate birthdays in a ritualized way. Why else would we throw parties and give and receive gifts? We eat cake, blow out candles, but I’m inclined to wonder whether anyone sees that little ritual as an allegory for life? After all, we eat to live and then our lives are snuffed out as quickly and finally as a candle.
For secular people, birthdays are an excuse to party. For a religious person, there are other, deeper observances. A birthday blessing gives meaning to the day beyond that of birth and a party. We do not only celebrate with other people, God celebrates with us. The concept that a being far beyond our comprehension would like to celebrate with us is an honor, but it is also a reminder that we are meant for more than just… this.
Don’t go thinking that I feel somehow deprived or unhappy with the way my birthdays go now. I woke up to special chocolate and ended my day with a great dinner with the Atheist Wife, who made me feel more loved and appreciated than I have in awhile. It is nice to be spoiled, but more than that it is nice to be acknowledged in a special way.
In a strictly secular life, it is the acknowledgement that matters most. A birthday is a commemoration, yes, but it is also a special moment where your existence in the world is acknowledged. Even people we do not know will wish us “happy birthday” but what they are really saying is, “I know you exist and I acknowledge you by recognizing the day of your birth.” That is an immediate type of recognition that gives strong meaning to a life. A birthday is a time when you know you matter in the world.
in some ways, that is a nicer sentiment than a birthday blessing. It is certainly more immediately heartwarming. Everyone likes to be appreciated and feel special. Birthdays do just that. But I almost wonder whether a secular birthday feels nice because it is an easier meaning to grasp.
Always Look on the Bright Side of Life
Life is good. A birthday is a fun day. I certainly did have fun. Other than work, there was champagne and watching Nanny McPhee. It was simple, but it was enjoyable. The day stood out from other days. I’m reminded of the Monty Python song “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” from the Life of Brian. Sometimes life sucks, but luckily there are birthdays to give you a bit of the bright side. Our birthdays, other people’s birthdays, Queen’s birthdays and Presidents’ birthdays – they’re all a bit of the bright side. That’s the side of life I like to look on. No matter how much things change, it still exists.