I've been struck by the ads and billboards atheists have purchased again this year suggesting that Christmas is, to put it kindly, a myth. Struck. Not offended or angered. Just struck.
The gist of the advertisements is essentially that there is little to no proof that Christmas -- either as we imagine it or as narrated in the New Testament -- ever happened and that, further, belief in God in general, let alone God incarnate in a baby born in Bethlehem, is foolish at best and more likely downright absurd. And here's the thing that strikes me: They may be right.
I know that many Christians find this possibility to be nearly unthinkable, but there it is: Only two of the four canonical gospels describe Jesus' birth, and they are markedly different. Whereas Matthew's story focuses on Joseph and the political machinations around Jesus' birth, Luke concentrates instead on Mary and the appearance of angels to lowly shepherds. Mark, by contrast, starts his story with an adult Jesus and mentions his family only in passing, while John takes a decidedly theological turn by penning what would become the key verses behind Christian reflection on the Incarnation: "In the beginning the Word was with God, and the Word was God" and "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:1, 14).
Today's atheists are not the first to doubt such sentiments. In the centuries before the Enlightenment, when atheism was less common (most people believed in some kind of God or gods), skepticism centered on the unseemliness of a deity become human. The second-century Gnostic Christian Marcion, for instance, preferred to imagine Jesus as a kind of super-angel rather than stomach the idea that the holy God would deign to be joined to frail and fickle human flesh. His views, wildly popular at the time, drew an unlikely opponent in the monk Tertullian of Carthage. "Come, then, start with the birth itself," Tertullian wrote,
the object of aversion, and run through your catalogue: the filth of the generative seeds within the womb, of the bodily fluid and blood; the loathsome, curdled lump of flesh which has to be fed for nine months off this same muck. ... Undoubtedly you are also horrified at the infant, the infant which has been brought into the world together with its after birth.
Pretty strong language for an ascetic monk! And, truth be told, as Tertullian goes on, it's hard not to sympathize with Marcion, as all this does seem a bit beneath the dignity of any self-respecting God. But then Tertullian gets down to business: "You repudiate such veneration of nature, do you," he asks, "but how were you born?" And there is Tertullian's point all along. If human birth is too messy or mucky for God, then so are we. Yet the God Tertullian worships is joined to God's beloved creation in the Incarnation precisely to share our lot and our life. A thousand years later, John Calvin will call this scandal God's "condescension." Unseemly? No question. But as Tertullian, Calvin and others have pointed out across the centuries, those in love will often condescend to crazy acts to gain the attention and affection of the beloved.
Today, of course, the concern isn't that the Incarnation is unseemly but rather that it -- and, indeed, any belief in God -- seems so incredibly unlikely, even phenomenally improbable. Again, I'm sympathetic. There is little to no evidence that can stand rational scrutiny that God exists, let alone that this same God not only knows that you and I exist but actually gives a damn, caring passionately about our ups and downs, successes and failures, hopes and fears. More than that, there would seem to be so much evidence in our war-torn and strife-ridden world to the contrary that belief in such a God seems not just extraordinary but downright absurd.
And that, for some, is just the point. Looking around, some of us see a world and humanity soaked in equal measures of beauty and brokenness, hope and disappointment, glory and shame. This is a world, we confess, that cannot save itself yet deserves a savior. Or as W. H. Auden once wrote, giving desperate voice to the simultaneously hopeful and hopeless shepherds trudging their way toward Bethlehem:
We who must die demand a miracle.
How could the Eternal do a temporal act,
The Infinite become a finite fact?
Nothing can save us that is possible:
We who must die demand a miracle.
Faced with cancer, or hunger, or loneliness, or disappointment, or depression, or any of the host of other things that on any given day threaten to overwhelm us, some have perceived, or at least dared to hope, that there is a reality beyond this one, that there is a God who created, cares for, and promises to redeem us and the whole creation. While some look upon this kind of desperate faith as part wishful thinking and part emotional crutch, others perceive, with Auden, that "nothing can save us that is possible" and so look with longing and hope to what Karl Barth once named "the impossible possibility."
Which is why, I think, the billboards opposing Christmas don't really offend me. For Christians like me, you see, atheism isn't so much an offense as an understandable and occasionally tempting alternative in light of our circumstances. In an age when absolute certainty seems to be the goal, many Christians (and some atheists as well, I suspect) will likely dismiss this kind of tentative faith as weak or tepid. Yet a more temperate approach to questions of faith and doubt seems somehow to accord better with the story of a helpless babe born to a teenage mother and placed in a feeding trough. This is a story not of strength but weakness, not of certainty but of courage, not of power but of utter vulnerability.
So is the Christmas story unlikely, improbable, even absurd? Perhaps. But some of us think that the world needs such a story and is, indeed, a better place for its telling. And so we believe. We do not know for certain, but we believe, in the words of 19th century poet Christina Rosetti, that, unlikely as it may seem,
Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, love divine,
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and angels gave the sign.