Saturday, January 1, 2011

11-01-02: Solemnity of the Epiphany

Solemnity of the Epiphany
Isaiah 60:1-6 / Psalm 72 / Ephesians 3:2-3,5-6 / Matthew 2:1-12
I couldn’t let the Epiphany go by without expressing my outrage over the billboard commissioned by American Atheists outside the Jersey-side of the Lincoln Tunnel. If you’re the suspicious-type like me, able to sense there’s something sinister in their intention, you might conclude with me that the Atheists are implying something so untenable and so unacceptable that outrage is the only possible reaction. The billboard pictures the Bethlehem star hovering over the manger where Jesus has just been born. From the left the three wise men are making their way towards the star as if they’re about to enter the Lincoln Tunnel too (would camels have to pay as cars or trucks?), as if they’ve been traveling with you – or you with them – which, of course, means that those sneaky atheists want you to believe that the magi might have come from New Jersey! Outrageous, totally untenable, quite inappropriate. Persia, maybe. Saudi Arabia, perhaps – but New Jersey? They’re supposed to be wise men after all – of course, you’re practically forced to conclude that it, indeed, must be a myth.

Apart from that – I rather like the sign. The slogan: You KNOW it’s a Myth – This Season Celebrate REASON! could just about have come from the pope’s recent Apostolic Exhortation, Verbum Dei (the Word of God). The slogan is reflective of the beautiful Prologue from John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word … and the Word was God. The Greek word for “word” is logos, from which we obviously get our English word “logic.” Logos is, ironically for those atheists, often translated as “reason.” “Creation,” Pope Benedict writes, “is born of the Logos and indelibly bears the mark of the creative Reason that orders and directs it…we acknowledge the Creator by contemplating his creation…’every creature,’ St. Bonaventure would write, ‘is a word of God.’”

I suspect, though, the Atheists are using the term “reason” as it comes to us from the Age of Enlightenment when faith began to be understood as opposed to reason by both skeptics-become-materialists and believers, causing Pascal to note that “the heart has its reasons which reason does not know.” Yet reason can lead us to wonder if the material world is all there is. Matter of fact, if you are an ardent materialist, where do you situate reason itself in a world that only judges things real if they can be detected and measured. Does your reason weigh an ounce or more? Is it only produced by synapses in the brain or might the heart have a say in it as well?

We’ve come to think of myths as inherently untrue. That’s too bad, really. Because myths, even if not historical, are meant to convey truth; or, at least, myths attempt to discern what’s true. C.S. Lewis, that student of myth, believed that myths are “man’s blind gropings for God” – trying to make sense out of things, employing reason in an attempt to understand nature, especially human nature. C.S. Lewis would say that Christianity is likewise a myth, but it is the myth that really happened in history, in time and space - not just in imagination.

Those magi traveling to Bethlehem hadn’t read the Bible. They didn’t know of any prophecy about would-be Messiahs or sons of gods. They were curious, though, searching the heavens for a key to help them understand life and its inherent mysteries. The magi were the scientists of their day, following the star, by the light of their own reason, to its unexpected end - the manger at Bethlehem.

If the American Atheists are proposing we do the same – then it’s not such bad advice. There will be doubt, even skepticism – but that is part of the process in this search for truth. The American Atheists seem to want people to confess that doubt and, in so doing, join their club. But they don’t realize it’s our club that they already belong to. It started way back on Mt. Sinai when Moses received that first commandment which commanded us to become atheists in a way: you shall have no other gods before me. Faith is born of doubt.

Christmas turns things upside down. It bids us question long-held assumptions, entertain doubt, even engage atheism. Christmas is a myth – how could divinity express itself in any other way – but a myth whose adherents claim to have taken place in history. A myth, not so much about the nature of divinity as it is about the nature of our humanity. That we human beings, so obviously related to other primates, nevertheless possess something that makes us quite different, enabling us to become receivers of divinity, fitting perfectly like hand-in-glove. Reason, according to the Atheists, might make you reject the Christmas story. But isn’t it just as reasonable to wonder why the possibility of Christmas even entered the human imagination in the first place. Christmas is a topsy-turvy myth that helps us see things that were once hidden and entertain possibilities never before considered, even the one sneakily suggested by that billboard: wise men from Jersey – indeed.

No comments:

Post a Comment