Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Origen of Alexandria – commentary on the celebration of birthdays

In combox of my previous post, I linked to the Catholic Encyclopedia entry: Christmas. From that entry, we read:

Christmas was not among the earliest festivals of the Church. Irenaeus and Tertullian omit it from their lists of feasts; Origen, glancing perhaps at the discreditable imperial Natalitia, asserts (in Lev. Hom. viii in Migne, P.G., XII, 495) that in the Scriptures sinners alone, not saints, celebrate their birthday...(Vol. III, page 724 in the 1908 printed edition)

I have a copy of Gary Wayne Barkley’s English translation of the above passage—the following selection is the germane portion to our topic at hand:

But Scripture also declares that one himself who is born whether male or female is not "clean from filth although his life is of one day.” And that you may know that there is something great in this and such that it has not come from the thought to any of the saints; not one from all the saints is found to have celebrated a festive day or a great feast on the day of his birth. No one is found to have had joy on the day of the birth of his son or daughter. Only sinners rejoice over this kind of birthday. For indeed we find in the Old Testament Pharaoh, king of Egypt, celebrating the day of his birth with a festival, and in the New Testament, Herod. However, both of them stained the festival of his birth by shedding human blood. For the Pharaoh killed "the chief baker,” Herod, the holy prophet John "in prison’” But the saints not only do not celebrate a festival on their birth days, but, filled with the Holy Spirit, they curse that day. (Origen, Homilies on Leviticus, trans. Gary Wayne Barkley; Catholic University of America Press – 1990, p. 156)

The above contribution is not the only time Origen commented on birthdays; from his commentary on Matthew’s Gospel we read:

And on birthdays, when the lawless word reigns over them, they dance so that their movements please that word. Some one of those before us has observed what is written in Genesis about the birthday of Pharaoh, and has told that the worthless man who loves things connected with birth keeps birthday festivals; and we, taking this suggestion from him, find in no Scripture that a birthday was kept by a righteous man. For Herod as more unjust than that famous Pharaoh ; for by the latter on his birthday feast a chief baker is killed ; but by the former, John... (Origen’s Commentary on Matthew, trans. John Patrick; Charles Scribner and Sons, 5th ed. 1906, ANF 9.428, 429)

Quite interesting…

Grace and peace,



leeseykay said...

Agreed. Quite interesting...

"But the saints not only do not celebrate a festival on their birth days, but, filled with the Holy Spirit, they curse that day."

So it is not good enough to suppress the now nearly universal modern custom of birthday celebrations? To be saintly, we must positively curse the day we were born?

Do, or did saints undergo an unhappy kind of ceremony in which they annually remembered with heartfelt regret, the accursed day of their entrance in to this world?

Obviously there is no Tradition or Scripture to support birthday celebrations. I think the custom is of more recent origin. I had always thought that the practice was harmless, except if it means that the birthday boy or girl gets to commit murder or even lesser crimes in order to properly commemorate the "happy" occasion.

What interests me the most is this idea that instead of celebrating their birthday, Origen claims of the saints that "they curse that day." Who that you know of besides Origen, recommends that practice?

Presumably there would be an exception to the birthday of Jesus. But maybe not? He fulfilled all other precepts of God's law as though he were an ordinary sinner. He submitted to circumcision, baptism, and his parents redeemed Him on the fortieth day after His birth with a turtledove. There is no record of it, but do you suppose it is possible that Joseph and Mary joined the Son of God in cursing their births together as a devout observance?


David Waltz said...

Hi Rory,

Thanks much for your post—the first of 2021!!!

Since I cannot interrogate Origen to discern exactly what he meant by, “the saints not only do not celebrate a festival on their birth days, but, filled with the Holy Spirit, they curse that day”, I turned to Google, and performed a search on the above quote:


To my surprise, seems that quite a few folk have employed the same quote!

The first link has an anti-Catholic bias, but should not be dismissed outright:


The second link contains some germane information (the comments following the opening post should be read too):

Feasting in excess

Time for dinner, so I shall end with the following from the mouth of Job:

>>After this opened Job his mouth, and cursed his day. And Job spake, and said, Let the day perish wherein I was born, and the night in which it was said, There is a man child conceived. Let that day be darkness; let not God regard it from above, neither let the light shine upon it. Let darkness and the shadow of death stain it; let a cloud dwell upon it; let the blackness of the day terrify it.>> (KJV - Job 3:1-5)

Grace and peace,


David Waltz said...

Hello again Rory,

Check out the following from the prophet Jeremiah:

>>Sing unto the LORD, praise ye the LORD: for he hath delivered the soul of the poor from the hand of evildoers. Cursed be the day wherein I was born: let not the day wherein my mother bare me be blessed. Cursed be the man who brought tidings to my father, saying, A man child is born unto thee; making him very glad.>> (KJV - Jer. 20:13-15)

Grace and peace,


leeseykay said...

Hi Dave,

I find it interesting that the words of both Job and Jeremias lamenting their births came at moments of intense misery. I see nothing to indicate that this regret about one's own birth should be the saintly attitude at all times.

It seems to me that in both of these cases, afflicted with overwhelming sadness, they showed their human weakness and doubt about God's good will.

In Job's case, he persevered in his hour of trial for the first chapter, where we read that, "In all these things Job sinned not by his lips, nor spoke any foolish things against God." (Job 1:22). In the second chapter, his affliction was increased when with God's permission, Job was stricken with great physical maladies, while enduring this wife's recommendation that he blaspheme God and die.

In 2:10, we read how in his reply to her Job remained faithful:

"Thou hast spoken like one of the foolish women: if we have received good things at the hand of God, why should we not receive evil? In all these things Job did not sin with his lips."

In ch. 3, we find that after his friends had come to console him in his wretchedness in silence for seven days, he breaks down at the beginning of chapter 3:

After this Job opened his mouth, and cursed his day, And he said: Let the day perish wherein I was born, and the night in which it was said: A man child is conceived. Let that day be turned into darkness, let not God regard it from above, and let not the light shine upon it.

There is no commentary on these remarks as to how he had not sinned with his lips. It seems to me that if it is the ordinary and theologically necessary attitude of the saints to curse the day of their birth, there ought to be an even more glowing commentary on his holy speech which takes up the whole of ch. 3.

I hope your readers are aware of the dialogues that take place from this point to the end of the book in which Job's friendly tormentors make rash conclusions about the reasons God has let this happen to Job. Still, when God speaks to them all out of the whirlwind, Job repents of his words:

And the Lord went on, and said to Job: Shall he that contendeth with God be so easily silenced? surely he that reproveth God, ought to answer him. Then Job answered the Lord, and said: What can I answer, who hath spoken inconsiderately? I will lay my hand upon my mouth. One thing I have spoken, which I wish I had not said: and another, to which I will add no more.

I haven't had time to review the entire book of Job. Perhaps you or someone else can find something to indicate that Job's lament over his birth, is the holy norm which is well-pleasing to God. Unless I am missing something, I have great difficulty in seeing that in Job 3, God is showing us the model for how we should be thinking about our births.

You know me Dave, if your readers might not. I don't believe in Sola Scriptura, and I am pretty open-minded about alternative interpretation of Scripture when the Catholic Church hasn't given one. In this case, I believe I have exercised my freedom to speculate about the Scripture. I do NOT say that this means that Christians need to have birthday parties. At this time though, based on the two examples provided where someone cursed their birthday, I am unpersuaded that this would be a reasonable response to God's revelation.

No time for Jeremias except to note that his dad was glad when he heard Jeremias was born. What is up with that heathen? Happy because a baby boy is born? I guess he wasn't very religious? Or maybe devout parents are allowed to be happy about their children coming in to the world, while at the same time needing to teach them to curse their births?

David Waltz said...

Hi Rory,

I have provided a larger context of Origen’s remarks on birthdays in THIS NEW THREAD.

Hope to see you there when you have the time…

Grace and peace,