How Old Is She?

We remember birthdays of important people. In grade school—before the Monday holiday law messed it up—my classes noted February 12 as Lincoln’s birthday, February 22 as Washington’s. Martin Luther King was then still alive, but after his assassination he got added to this pantheon, albeit on a Monday and not necessarily his birthday itself.
    (A professor of medieval history, new from England, was puzzled by these Monday holidays. I explained as best I could, wanting a long weekend, etc. “Americans.” She shook her head. “You are so lazy.”)
    “Today is the birthday of . . .” is a welcome news feature. But have you ever wondered, Which birthday? MLK was born on January 15, 1929. Was January 15, 2021, his 92nd birthday? Do birthdays keep increasing as the years go by, even if you have died?
    I think not. At a funeral we entrust the soul of the deceased to Almighty God and his body to the ground (or the sea, or the elements). God is taking care of him until the great day of general resurrection. But that care is not here, not in this created world.
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    I am writing this column on my wife’s 66th birthday. She died when she was 57. So is today really her 66th birthday? It is the 66th anniversary of her birth, yes, but I’m pretty sure she’s not 66 years old.
    A young fellow asked me recently if birthdays get celebrated in heaven. If there aren’t going to be birthdays, he seemed to say, well, why go? Note the importance our culture places on birthdays!
    When we find a difference between church and culture, it can be a chance to learn something.
    The church’s custom from early days is to remember people on the day they die, a date that one might think of as a birthday into paradise. Some years ago, I started noting death-days in my personal calendar: relatives, friends, and also people important to me. T. S. Eliot, for instance, pops up on January 4, the day he died in 1965; Richard John Neuhaus on January 8 (Neuhaus died on Elvis’s birthday). Francisco de Vitoria appears on August 12. (We don’t know his birthday; he may not have noted it himself.) In the Episcopal Church, we remember C. S. Lewis on November 22 (died 1963, yes, same day as President Kennedy).
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    Here’s what I say: Today is “the 66th anniversary of” Susan’s birth, “the day that would be” her 66th birthday. But she is not 66 years old. She is in God’s hands in a different way.

The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God who Gives and Takes Away."