They're almost becoming a Christmas tradition. The billboards erected by atheists challenging the Christmas story and Christian faith, I mean. The one in Times Square this year reads, "Keep the Merry" underneath a picture of Santa Claus, and "Dump the Myth" below a statue of a crucified Jesus. Last year it was four pictures - Jesus, Santa, Poseidon, and the devil - with the caption "37 Million Americans know MYTHS when they see them. What myths do you see?" And in 2010, when this particular "tradition" seems to have first gained steam, it was a picture of the nativity with the banner spread below that read, "You know it's a MYTH. This season, celebrate reason."
I was reminded of that billboard when I heard about the live nativity held this past Saturday at St. Rose of Lima Parish, a Roman Catholic Church in Newtown, Connecticut. St. Rose was open the night before, the evening of the school killings, for a prayer vigil, and while they undoubtedly debated whether to go forward with their plans, they apparently decided that this story should be told in the hope that its telling might bring a measure of comfort and hope to those who most needed it. And so this past Saturday evening, parishioners gathered around a make shift stable, surrounded by various farm animals, to portray the characters of the Christmas story that culminates in the birth of Jesus in a manager with visits from shepherds, wise men, and angels.
If it's just a myth, I wondered, are they deluding themselves? Or, at the least, are they understandably but unfortunately seeking comfort from a fairy tale? I wonder.
Certainly that live nativity, like countless other crèches and manger scenes through the centuries, combine elements of Luke's and Matthew's distinct stories. Indeed, as you read them closely, it's hard to reconcile their two accounts. Luke's, for instance, focuses on Mary: the conversation she has with Gabriel, her willing participation in God's plans, and her visit with her cousin Elizabeth. Matthew, in contrast, weaves his story around Joseph: his lineage to David and Abraham, his dilemma in discovering that his intended is pregnant, his own conversation with Gabriel, and his faithful obedience to the angel's instructions.
Luke tells of shepherds and angels, while Matthew describes magi and a guiding star. Matthew narrates an escape to Egypt about which Luke seems to know nothing. And the list goes on, not just in the infancy narratives but throughout these stories that, while regularly similar, are also definitely distinct in all manner of details both great and small.
And so the question arises, are these stories that we sing and tell at this time of year trustworthy?
Notice that the question I raise is whether they are "trustworthy," not "historically accurate." That's a distinction often lost on both conservative Christians and atheists alike. We tend to conflate facts and truth, assuming that only those things that are factual are true and that if anything is true and trustworthy it must be rationally verifiable. Yet the biggest convictions and guiding truths of our lives - about the value of freedom, the importance of love, the sanctity of life - are truths that are simply too big to be proven (or disproven) in a laboratory.
So while the Pope may have a vested interest in attempting to validate the historical accuracy of the stories of Jesus' birth, I think we misunderstand their intent by doing so. The evangelists - those early Christians who wrote the gospels - were less interested in recording history - at least in the post-Enlightenment sense that we know history - than they were in making confessions of faith. Luke starts his whole endeavor, in fact, not only by admitting that he wasn't an eye-witness but also by saying that he is sorting through the various stories about Jesus floating around at the time to offer an account that has been ordered and arranged so as to confirm and strengthen the faith of his community (Luke 1:1-4).
Luke - and Matthew, Mark, and John for that matter - are playing for bigger stakes than mere historical accuracy. They are trying to share their faith far more than they are trying to establish the facts, and for this reason we should probably regard them more as artists than as historians. Yet does not art also point us to truth, often in ways that mere facts cannot?
For this reason, I would argue that while the gospel writers undoubtedly play fast and loose with the various stories, sayings, and incidents they inherited, they did so in order to craft and offer a clear and compelling confession of faith about God, us, and the world.
For instance, while there is little historical evidence of the "slaughter of the innocents" (Matt. 2:16-18; though no one doubts Herod, who murdered members of his own family, wasn't capable of such an act), this story, with its description of Rachel weeping inconsolably for her children tells the truth, the truth about all mothers and fathers who have had their children torn from their arms by war, disease, hunger or, this past weekend, by gunfire in an elementary school. Frankly, I don't know or care if it "really happened," it is nevertheless trustworthy because it captures the truth and tragedy of a world where the most vulnerable can be gunned down and families who selected and wrapped Christmas gifts with care will return them unopened. Indeed, "a voice was heard in Newtown, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more."
Such stories tell us the truth, the truth about the world we live in, about our capacity for good and evil, bravery and cowardice, and about the hopes and fears and tragedies of our lives. But they don't stop there. These stories of wayward magicians, outcast shepherds, and unwed teens also confess the truth that somehow, somewhere, God is mixed up in all of this. That God came in the form of a vulnerable child, born just like those children at Sandy Hook School, in order to be Emmanuel, God with us. That God in this child took on our lot and our life in order that we might have hope that where we are right now - no matter how dark or difficult - God in Jesus has already been, and that where Jesus is now, we will someday be.
Reasonable? Not on your life. But that's just the point. At the edge of reason we encounter mystery and redemption, and when the Evangelists two thousand years ago - or the parishioners and mourners of St. Rose of Lima this past weekend - tell this story we are drawn into a reality we believes stretches beyond our reality and into a story that encompasses all of our stories. A story, that is, that whether factually accurate or not is nevertheless both trustworthy and true.