The Rev. Clare Fischer-Davies
St. Martin’s Church
December 19, 2010
Advent IV A
“You know it’s a myth.”
That is the slogan chosen this year by American Atheists for their winter holiday ad campaign. American Atheists have an ad campaign every year, but this is the first year they’ve gotten a lot of press about it, because this year, the organization put that slogan on a billboard right at the New Jersey entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel. As you make your agonizingly slow way from Highway 495 down into the tunnel, you have LOTS of time to contemplate the message on that billboard.
It definitely catches the eye. Underneath the slogan, is a silhouette rendering of a traditional nativity scene – three wise men on camels moving toward the manger with Mary, Joseph, baby, random donkey all beneath an enormous star. “You know it’s a myth; this season, celebrate reason,” is the full text.
If you go their web site, Atheists.Org, you will read that they are tremendously pleased with the results of this year’s campaign. “The billboard has far exceeded our expectations!” they write. “Membership is up, donations are up, and more importantly, we have been contacted by about one hundred closeted atheists thanking us for letting them know that we existed and that they were not alone.”
I don’t know – somehow that really tickled me. I truly have every sympathy for anyone who has experienced being marginalized, mocked or tormented in anyway – but it has been hard for me to take the plight of closeted atheists very seriously. I suppose I think that, if you believe that reason alone is the road to all knowledge and understanding, then you ought to be like Spock on Star Trek and not be vulnerable to any human emotion. A devotee of pure reason ought not to be tormented by any feelings of self-consciousness that would make that person keep that devotion to reason in a closet. If reason defines all, I would expect an atheist to proudly claim it. After all, if you are certain you’re right, why should anything else matter?
I’m not really entirely sure what American Atheists are so exercised about. Yes indeed, the culture around us is saturated with references to Christmas – and if I have to hear “Holly Jolly Christmas” one more time while I wait in a checkout line, my brains will start to ooze out of my ears – but surely American Atheists understands that none of that saturation has ANYTHING to do with Christ. Even if the muzak is blaring
”Silent Night” instead of “Holly Jolly,” none of that has anything to do with Jesus – and everything to do with commerce, and our psychological need for a winter holiday.
If it comes to that, the silhouette traditional nativity scene that’s on the billboard doesn’t have much to do with Jesus, either – not in any meaningful way. Their just visual tags – identifiers – and I wonder why American Atheists chose such a flat and uninteresting image to go with their slogan.
I wonder just how many people stuck on that slow spiral down the hill into the Lincoln Tunnel look at the billboard and are moved either to proudly claim their atheist identity, or ponder deeply either the images or the slogan. Personally, I think most people inching their way down that ramp take one look at the billboard, think vaguely – “Yeah, more Christmas stuff” and go right back to texting, cursing the driver in front, and wishing they’d left home twenty minutes earlier.
More Christmas stuff. Except, of course, what we’re seeing around us isn’t really Christmas stuff. It’s holiday stuff that’s attached itself to the Christian proclamation like bedbugs – we’ll never get rid of it. There’s no way we’ll ever get rid of Rudolph, and “very special holiday” episodes of every show on TV; we’ll never get rid of office parties, and people in Santa hats and eggnog.
Not that there’s anything wrong with any of that stuff. I’m just pointing out to any closeted atheists within hearing that what gets identified as “Christmas stuff” in the culture around us just doesn’t have anything to do with the story that defines Christmas for people of faith. All this stuff around us sweeps us up into an enjoyable haze of sentiment, nostalgia, overeating and overconsumption, but it doesn’t have anything to do at all with Emmanuel – God with us.
American Atheists also has a logo – that identifies all their printed and internet material. And this gets really interesting. The logo is a model of an atom – you know, the interlocking elliptical orbits that is one way scientists envision electrons whirling around the nucleus of an atom. So American Atheists seem to be staking out science as their territory, and claiming that reason will suffice to explain everything in the universe, and anything that cannot be explained by reason is either false, or simply not yet fully understood.
Well, I don’t really know very much about atomic science – although I know more than I did a semester ago. But I do know that the heart of an atom is a pretty mysterious place – in that incomprehensibly tiny space dwell weird particles and barely understood forces that somehow work together to make everything that is. Most scientists I know are pretty modest about claiming that their research is about to unlock the mysteries of the universe – most of them are humbled by how much is still unknown and about how newer discoveries continually challenge what had been accepted knowledge.
But none of that really has very much to do with Christmas either – except like scientists studying the atom, as we stand on the threshold of Christmas, we have to be humbled by all that we don’t know. That’s why we tell and retell this story.
I’m going to assume pretty much every person here has seen “A Charlie Brown” Christmas at least once. Everything is going wrong – the school Christmas play is a disaster, Charlie Brown is failing at everything he tries, Lucy is tormenting everyone in her path – and suddenly Linus steps forward and starts to tell the story, right out of the second chapter of Luke. “And it came to pass, in the days of Caesar Augustus, when Quirinius was governor of Syria, that all the world should be taxed…” And everyone else falls silent.
It’s time for us to start telling the story. Because in these details – a young peasant woman from the backwaters of Galilee, a journey on a donkey, a birth in a barn, angelic choirs and stupefied shepherds – in all these details that we tell and retell year after year, we are trying to know the story more deeply.
Like a scientist gazing into the atom, we know that we do not fully understand what we’re looking at. What does it mean to say that the Word becomes flesh and lives among us? What does it mean that the angel’s proclamation comes to poor shepherds and not to the chief priests in Jerusalem? Why is it important that mysterious visitors come from far away bringing such a strange assortment of gifts?
To say that we are humble before a mystery and that our understanding is incomplete is not at all the same thing as saying that it’s all a myth. Reason is a great gift, but it will always only take us so far. Reason will always be finite – limited in even the greatest human intelligence because well, limitation is what it means to be human.
And that’s the greatest mystery of all – that God – the author of everything that is, the Creator of all the complexity and beauty of the universe - that Holy One chooses to live and die as one of us. That is a mystery that even a lifetime of telling this story will never be fully understood. And that’s fine with me.
I am grateful for the gift of reason. But this season, I’m going to celebrate the power, the love and the mystery of God.