I recently ran into a new (to me?) liturgical trend that seems to be suddenly ubiquitous, and that, at least initially caught me somewhat flat footed: Celebrating Christmas by singing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus, and/or making part of the Christmas celebration a birthday party for Jesus.
My initial feeling is that this celebration is extremely misguided, and I think I can articulate some objections; but I’m having some difficulty clearly and thoroughly articulating an objection (assuming it is problematic), and I don’t know how to respond well. What are your thoughts on this sort of liturgical practice, and how to respond to it well? I’m particularly concerned regarding the catechesis of my daughter.
(RE: Its ubiquity: Today our pastor said the church would sing “Happy Birthday to Jesus” in the liturgy after the Christ candle in the advent wreath is lit–as if the Christ candle were His birthday candle(!), and there’d be birthday cake for Jesus after the service; my daughter sang it as part of her preschool’s Christmas celebration; and my nephew’s LCMS Christmas celebration was a celebration of “The birthday of our best friend, Jesus”.)
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I think the first reaction of the questioner to this is absolutely right: it is extremely misguided for a number of reasons. I think the main thing to notice is that this is something that would be very unlikely to arise in a culture other than our own, where there is a very low power difference. When we talk about ‘power difference’ or ‘power distance’, we could think about the relationship between, for instance, a person of one generation and a person of the older generation. A society with a larger power distance will have a lot more deference in that relationship. They will speak to that older party with terms like “sir”, or if you are relating to someone from another family, you might use “Mr.” or “Mrs.”, or you will address people using a formal title.
There is a sense of formality, deference, and etiquette, and all these sorts of things, that our society—particularly in the US and UK—does not have in most places. There are certain parts of the US where you do have this, but more generally in the UK and the US, there is not a very strong power difference or distance. What we have are overly intimate relationships where we will talk about everyone as if we were on first-name terms. We will break down any sort of sense of distance and the deference that needs to be expressed across that.
When we are talking about our relationship with Christ, this is something that can be very noticeable in the sort of spiritualities that develop within these contexts. Within the Western world, there has been an appreciation for a very low power distance relationship with Christ, where we speak about Christ primarily as a friend or using an overly intimate way of relating. We think about the term “Abba” as if it contained that sense of a very intimate “daddy” relationship, although that is not actually what the term means.
It is also important to recognize that within Scripture, we do not see these terms functioning in quite that same way. When Jesus says that he calls the disciples his ‘friends’, there is something different implied by that than our idea of friendship, which is an overly intimate framework for understanding how Christ relates to his disciples.
When we are talking about Christ as our ‘friend’, that is a very different sort of thing from this hyper-intimate and informal relationship that we tend to celebrate now. When you think about birthday parties, when you think about singing someone “Happy Birthday”, there is a very deep level of familiarity expressed there: an intimacy, a sort of informality, a familiarity, and an entrance into a shared realm of privacy where you can address someone on first-name terms, speak to them in a very informal way, and relate to them as a private person.
Increasingly, when we talk about Christ within our culture, we tend to think in those sorts of categories—as if we are relating to Christ as a private person, rather than as Saviour and Lord, the One who sits on the throne, the One whose counsel we enter into. That is a certain sort of friendship that is closer to the notion that we see in Scripture, but we like to think in terms of a deeply intimate, close, personal, and informal relationship, where we can relate to Christ as our buddy or pal or friend, and we can relate to God as “Abba”—“daddy”—not recognizing that that term does not mean “daddy” in that hyper-intimate sense.
The other thing to notice about this is that it presents the celebration of Christ’s incarnation as if it were a private celebration, a personal celebration of Christ’s own that we are celebrating with him and for him. “We’re celebrating Jesus today because Jesus is so awesome.” And so we end up celebrating something about him which does not really recognize the true character of this event: the birth of Christ is not just a birthday—it is the Incarnation, it is a theological event of immense, world-changing significance. We date our years from this event!
This is something that gives orientation to time. This is not just another event that occurs within time, a private celebration that we celebrate with Christ, because He is our friend and our pal, and we want to celebrate him and say how good He is. No! This is something that changes history in the same way as the Resurrection.
The resurrection is another event of birth: it is the birth from the dead, it is the firstfruits of the last resurrection that is going to occur. So, when we think about Christ’s birth and His incarnation, it is the coming of God in human flesh! That is not the same thing as what we think about as a birthday. This is something that changes history. It is something that has significance for everyone. It is something that changes the way that society thinks about itself, the way that we relate as a human race to God—God is now one of us, and that is what this event means! It is not just Christ’s private celebration of a special day in his life—how it all began—and “we wish Christ many happy returns of the day”. No! Christ’s birth is something so much more than that.
Christ’s incarnation is not the same thing as just a birthday, and as Christ sits at the right hand of the Father in human flesh, we are not just wishing him many happy returns. We are celebrating the fact that human flesh, the dust of this earth, is seated at the right hand of God’s throne in heaven. We are celebrating something far more significant than a birthday, a private event. We are not doing this as a celebration of some intimacy, over-familiarity and this sense of informality in our relationship with God. No, we are relating to our Lord and our Saviour Jesus Christ, the Judge of all, the Second Adam and the One who represents the human race, and that is a very different sort of celebration.
But with our way of viewing this, we easily fall prey to these sorts of novelties, these ways of reducing a deep theological event of the Incarnation into something trivialized, something that is a private celebration that we enter into, and that cuts Christ down to a size that is unfitting of His dignity.
When we celebrate even the birthday of Her Majesty the Queen—now, if you are in the US, you unfortunately do not have the privilege of having Her Majesty as your monarch—her birthday is not just a celebration of some private events in her life, with candles and birthday cake and singing “Happy Birthday”. There is a 41-gun salute and Trooping the Colour. It is a very majestic event. It is a celebration of something far greater: she represents us, she stands for the nation, and so her birthday celebration must befit a person of her stature. We must recognize something of the power distance between her and us—that we cannot be informal and over-familiar with her, even while we can recognize and love her, and be drawn to celebrate that event.
This is one of the things that we are not very good at recognizing within our society, and so I think that unless we unpick some of the problems that we have in recognizing authority and a proper comportment towards authority, we will struggle to do this well and will easily fall into the trap of these sorts of practices. So I believe there are very good reasons to resist this. If your church is doing it, I would advise you to just discuss it and encourage people not to do this, because it is not a fitting way of responding to Christ’s majesty, it is not a fitting way of thinking about the Incarnation, and it is not a fitting way of comporting ourselves to God.