Tuesday, September 29, 2020

John Calvin on Birthdays

This Sunday I plan to preach on Matthew 13:53-14:12, which tells of Jesus rejection at his hometown and John the Baptist's execution at the hands of Herod. In his commentary on this passage, John Calvin (1509-1564) addresses the practice of celebrating one's birthday, since Herod was persuaded to execute John at Herod's birthday party. Obviously, this particular birthday party was the occasion of a great sin, so Calvin points out the temptations that accompany celebrations, but he also points out that birthday celebrations themselves are lawful and can be a beneficial observance if rightly used.
"The ancient custom of observing a birthday every year as an occasion of joy cannot in itself be disapproved; for that day, as often as it returns, reminds each of us to give thanks to God, who brought us into this world, and has permitted us, in his kindness, to spend many years in it; next, to bring to our recollection how improperly and uselessly the time which God granted to us has been permitted to pass away; and, lastly, that we ought to commit ourselves to the protection of the same God for the remainder of our life.

"But nothing is so pure that the world shall not taint it with its own vices. A birthday, which ought to have been held sacred, is profaned by the greater part of men with disgraceful abuses; and there is scarcely a single entertainment at all costly that is free from wicked debauchery. First, men drink more freely; next, the door is opened to filthy and immodest conversation; and, lastly, no moderation is observed. This was the reason why the patriarch Job was in the habit of offering sacrifices, while his sons were feasting alternately in each other’s houses (Job 1:5). It was because he thought that, when the guests invite one another to mirth, they are far from maintaining due moderation, and sin in a variety of ways." (source)
His reference to Job points us to what is probably another biblical reference to birthday celebrations (the phrase in Job 1:4, "his day," is also used in Job 3:1 where it clearly refers to the day of one's birth). As Calvin describes birthdays, so Job 1:4-5 portrays birthdays both as a good thing, a sign of God's blessing upon Job's family, as well as a possible occasion of sin. 
"His sons used to go and hold a feast in the house of each one on his day, and they would send and invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. And when the days of the feast had run their course, Job would send and consecrate them, and he would rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all. For Job said, 'It may be that my children have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts.' Thus Job did continually." (Job 1:4–5)
Indeed, as Calvin says, "nothing is so pure that the world shall not taint it with its own vices." Let us not make the day an occasion of selfishness or a time when we lower our guard against sin, but rather may each of us make a good use of this observance when it comes. May we gratefully mark the life God has given us and "number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom" (Ps. 90:12), rejoicing in the mercy he has shown. 

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