The Easter Challenge

Dan Barker has issued a perennial challenge to Christians. In it, Dan asks, “tell me what happened on Easter. I am not asking for proof. My straightforward request is merely that Christians tell me exactly what happened on the day that their most important doctrine was born.” The terms of this challenge are to harmonize the gospel accounts from Easter morning until the end of each gospel, without omitting a single detail.

More than a decade ago, I decided to take up this challenge, simply to familiarize myself with the issues involved with this challenge, so that I may be better informed when discussing the gospel accounts with others. I intended to take as liberal a position as possible, including all non-redundant events under the assumption that differing details are omissions between the accounts. For convenience, when an event is recorded in two or more gospels, I included the text from the older source (assuming that Mark is the oldest account, followed by Matthew, Luke and John).

I did not include text from Mark 9-20, since it is not found in the original manuscripts, and most of its narrative content is a paraphrase of other gospels. I also did not include Acts 1:3-12, since the account in Luke ends with an ascension, and I will not be including Paul’s formula in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, since it does not contribute any narrative details in a context which promotes harmonization.

My source text translation is the New American Standard Bible.

Mark 16

[verses 9-20 are later additions to Mark, and considered later interpolations from the other gospel accounts. Verses 17 and 18 are not found in any form in the other gospels, and may be an interpolation from Acts 28:3-5]

1   When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought spices, so that they might come and anoint Him.
2   Very early on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb when the sun had risen.
3   They were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?”
4   Looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away, although it was extremely large.
5   Entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting at the right, wearing a white robe; and they were amazed.
6   And he said to them, “Do not be amazed; you are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who has been crucified. He has risen; He is not here; behold, here is the place where they laid Him.
7   “But go, tell His disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see Him, just as He told you.'”
8   They went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had gripped them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
9   Now after He had risen early on the first day of the week, He first appeared to Mary Magdalene, from whom He had cast out seven demons.
10   She went and reported to those who had been with Him, while they were mourning and weeping.
11   When they heard that He was alive and had been seen by her, they refused to believe it.
12   After that, He appeared in a different form to two of them while they were walking along on their way to the country.
13   They went away and reported it to the others, but they did not believe them either.
14   Afterward He appeared to the eleven themselves as they were reclining at the table; and He reproached them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who had seen Him after He had risen.
15   And He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.
16   “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned.
17   “These signs will accompany those who have believed: in My name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues;
18   they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.”
19   So then, when the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, He was received up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God.
20   And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them, and confirmed the word by the signs that followed. And they promptly reported all these instructions to Peter and his companions. And after that, Jesus Himself sent out through them from east to west the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.

 

Matthew 28

1   Now after the Sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to look at the grave.
2   And behold, a severe earthquake had occurred, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled away the stone and sat upon it.
3   And his appearance was like lightning, and his clothing as white as snow.
4   The guards shook for fear of him and became like dead men.
5   The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; for I know that you are looking for Jesus who has been crucified.
6   “He is not here, for He has risen, just as He said. Come, see the place where He was lying.
7   “Go quickly and tell His disciples that He has risen from the dead; and behold, He is going ahead of you into Galilee, there you will see Him; behold, I have told you.”
8   And they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy and ran to report it to His disciples.
9   And behold, Jesus met them and greeted them. And they came up and took hold of His feet and worshiped Him.
10   Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and take word to My brethren to leave for Galilee, and there they will see Me.”
11   Now while they were on their way, some of the guard came into the city and reported to the chief priests all that had happened.
12   And when they had assembled with the elders and consulted together, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers,
13   and said, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole Him away while we were asleep.’
14   “And if this should come to the governor’s ears, we will win him over and keep you out of trouble.”
15   And they took the money and did as they had been instructed; and this story was widely spread among the Jews, and is to this day.
16   But the eleven disciples proceeded to Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had designated.
17   When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some were doubtful.
18   And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.
19   “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,
20   teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

 

Luke 24

1   But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb bringing the spices which they had prepared.
2   And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb,
3   but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.
4   While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men suddenly stood near them in dazzling clothing;
5   and as the women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, “Why do you seek the living One among the dead?
6   “He is not here, but He has risen. Remember how He spoke to you while He was still in Galilee,
7   saying that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.”
8   And they remembered His words,
9   and returned from the tomb and reported all these things to the eleven and to all the rest.
10   Now they were Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James; also the other women with them were telling these things to the apostles.
11   But these words appeared to them as nonsense, and they would not believe them.
12   But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen wrappings only; and he went away to his home, marveling at what had happened.
13   And behold, two of them were going that very day to a village named Emmaus, which was about seven miles from Jerusalem.
14   And they were talking with each other about all these things which had taken place.
15   While they were talking and discussing, Jesus Himself approached and began traveling with them.
16   But their eyes were prevented from recognizing Him.
17   And He said to them, “What are these words that you are exchanging with one another as you are walking?” And they stood still, looking sad.
18   One of them, named Cleopas, answered and said to Him, “Are You the only one visiting Jerusalem and unaware of the things which have happened here in these days?”
19   And He said to them, “What things?” And they said to Him, “The things about Jesus the Nazarene, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word in the sight of God and all the people,
20   and how the chief priests and our rulers delivered Him to the sentence of death, and crucified Him.
21   “But we were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel. Indeed, besides all this, it is the third day since these things happened.
22   “But also some women among us amazed us. When they were at the tomb early in the morning,
23   and did not find His body, they came, saying that they had also seen a vision of angels who said that He was alive.
24   “Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just exactly as the women also had said; but Him they did not see.”
25   And He said to them, “O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken!
26   “Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?”
27   Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.
28   And they approached the village where they were going, and He acted as though He were going farther.
29   But they urged Him, saying, “Stay with us, for it is getting toward evening, and the day is now nearly over.” So He went in to stay with them.
30   When He had reclined at the table with them, He took the bread and blessed it, and breaking it, He began giving it to them.
31   Then their eyes were opened and they recognized Him; and He vanished from their sight.
32   They said to one another, “Were not our hearts burning within us while He was speaking to us on the road, while He was explaining the Scriptures to us?”
33   And they got up that very hour and returned to Jerusalem, and found gathered together the eleven and those who were with them,
34   saying, “The Lord has really risen and has appeared to Simon.”
35   They began to relate their experiences on the road and how He was recognized by them in the breaking of the bread.
36   While they were telling these things, He Himself stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be to you.”
37   But they were startled and frightened and thought that they were seeing a spirit.
38   And He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?
39   “See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”
40   And when He had said this, He showed them His hands and His feet.
41   While they still could not believe it because of their joy and amazement, He said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?”
42   They gave Him a piece of a broiled fish;
43   and He took it and ate it before them.
44   Now He said to them, “These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”
45   Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures,
46   and He said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day,
47   and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
48   “You are witnesses of these things.
49   “And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”
50   And He led them out as far as Bethany, and He lifted up His hands and blessed them.
51   While He was blessing them, He parted from them and was carried up into heaven.
52   And they, after worshiping Him, returned to Jerusalem with great joy,
53   and were continually in the temple praising God.

 

John 20,21

1   Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came early to the tomb, while it was still dark, and saw the stone already taken away from the tomb.
2   So she ran and came to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him.”
3   So Peter and the other disciple went forth, and they were going to the tomb.
4   The two were running together; and the other disciple ran ahead faster than Peter and came to the tomb first;
5   and stooping and looking in, he saw the linen wrappings lying there; but he did not go in.
6   And so Simon Peter also came, following him, and entered the tomb; and he saw the linen wrappings lying there,
7   and the face-cloth which had been on His head, not lying with the linen wrappings, but rolled up in a place by itself.
8   So the other disciple who had first come to the tomb then also entered, and he saw and believed.
9   For as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead.
10   So the disciples went away again to their own homes.
11   But Mary was standing outside the tomb weeping; and so, as she wept, she stooped and looked into the tomb;
12   and she saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had been lying.
13   And they said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him.”
14   When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, and did not know that it was Jesus.
15   Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing Him to be the gardener, she said to Him, “Sir, if you have carried Him away, tell me where you have laid Him, and I will take Him away.”
16   Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to Him in Hebrew, “Rabboni!” (which means, Teacher).
17   Jesus said to her, “Stop clinging to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God.'”
18   Mary Magdalene came, announcing to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord,” and that He had said these things to her.
19   So when it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and when the doors were shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
20   And when He had said this, He showed them both His hands and His side. The disciples then rejoiced when they saw the Lord.
21   So Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.”
22   And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.
23   “If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.”
24   But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came.
25   So the other disciples were saying to him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.”
26   After eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors having been shut, and stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.”
27   Then He said to Thomas, “Reach here with your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand and put it into My side; and do not be unbelieving, but believing.”
28   Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!”
29   Jesus said to him, “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.”
30   Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book;
31   but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.

 

1   After these things Jesus manifested Himself again to the disciples at the Sea of Tiberias, and He manifested Himself in this way.
2   Simon Peter, and Thomas called Didymus, and Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, and the sons of Zebedee, and two others of His disciples were together.
3   Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will also come with you.” They went out and got into the boat; and that night they caught nothing.
4   But when the day was now breaking, Jesus stood on the beach; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus.
5   So Jesus said to them, “Children, you do not have any fish, do you?” They answered Him, “No.”
6   And He said to them, “Cast the net on the right-hand side of the boat and you will find a catch.” So they cast, and then they were not able to haul it in because of the great number of fish.
7   Therefore that disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord.” So when Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put his outer garment on (for he was stripped for work), and threw himself into the sea.
8   But the other disciples came in the little boat, for they were not far from the land, but about one hundred yards away, dragging the net full of fish.
9   So when they got out on the land, they saw a charcoal fire already laid and fish placed on it, and bread.
10   Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish which you have now caught.”
11   Simon Peter went up and drew the net to land, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three; and although there were so many, the net was not torn.
12   Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples ventured to question Him, “Who are You?” knowing that it was the Lord.
13   Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and the fish likewise.
14   This is now the third time that Jesus was manifested to the disciples, after He was raised from the dead.
15   So when they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Tend My lambs.”
16   He said to him again a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Shepherd My sheep.”
17   He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, “Do you love Me?” And he said to Him, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.” Jesus said to him, “Tend My sheep.
18   “Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to gird yourself and walk wherever you wished; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will gird you, and bring you where you do not wish to go.”
19   Now this He said, signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when He had spoken this, He said to him, “Follow Me!”
20   Peter, turning around, saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; the one who also had leaned back on His bosom at the supper and said, “Lord, who is the one who betrays You?”
21   So Peter seeing him said to Jesus, “Lord, and what about this man?”
22   Jesus said to him, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow Me!”
23   Therefore this saying went out among the brethren that that disciple would not die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but only, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you?”
24   This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and wrote these things, and we know that his testimony is true.
25   And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written.

 

Harmonized Resurrection Narrative

When the Sabbath was over, as it began to dawn,1)Mark: when the sun had risen Luke: at early dawn  John: while it was still dark Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Joanna, and Salome bought spices which they had prepared, [and] came to look at the grave so that they might come and anoint Him.

And behold, a severe earthquake had occurred,2)The tense of this event is debatable. For the convenience of this harmonization, I will assume the pluperfect. for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled away the stone and sat upon it. And his appearance was like lightning and his clothing as white as snow. The guards shook for fear of him and became like dead men.

[The women] were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?” Looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away, although it was extremely large. When they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men3)Matthew: an angel suddenly stood near them in dazzling white robe[s]; [one was] sitting at the right. They were amazed and terrified and bowed their faces to the ground. The men said to them:

“Do not be amazed [or] afraid; for I know that you are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who has been crucified. Why do you seek the living One among the dead? He has risen; He is not here, just as He said; behold, here is the place where they laid Him. Remember how He spoke to you while He was still in Galilee, saying that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again. But go, tell His disciples and Peter that He has risen from the dead, ‘He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see Him, just as He told you.'”

They went out and fled from the tomb4)Authentic Markan testimony ends here. with fear and great joy and ran to report it to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, to the eleven and to all the rest.5)Mark: for trembling and astonishment had gripped them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. And behold, [on the way] Jesus met them and greeted them. And they came up and took hold of His feet and worshiped Him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and take word to My brethren to leave for Galilee, and there they will see Me.”

Now while they were on their way, some of the guard came into the city and reported to the chief priests all that had happened. And when they had assembled with the elders and consulted together, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers, and said, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole Him away while we were asleep.’ “And if this should come to the governor’s ears, we will win him over and keep you out of trouble.” And they took the money and did as they had been instructed; and this story was widely spread among the Jews, and is to this day.

[Upon reaching Jesus’ disciples, the women] said to them, “They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him.” But these words appeared to them as nonsense, and they would not believe them. But Peter and the other disciple got up and ran to the tomb together; and the other disciple ran ahead faster than Peter and came to the tomb first; and stooping and looking in, he saw the linen wrappings lying there; but he did not go in. And so Simon Peter also came, following him, and entered the tomb stooping and looking in, he saw the linen wrappings only and the face-cloth which had been on His head, not lying with the linen wrappings, but rolled up in a place by itself. And he went away to his home, marveling at what had happened. So the other disciple who had first come to the tomb then also entered, and he saw and believed. For as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead. So the disciples went away again to their own homes.

But Mary was standing outside the tomb weeping; and so, as she wept, she stooped and looked into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had been lying. And they said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, and did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing Him to be the gardener, she said to Him, “Sir, if you have carried Him away, tell me where you have laid Him, and I will take Him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to Him in Hebrew, “Rabboni!” (which means, Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Stop clinging to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God.'” Mary Magdalene came, announcing to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord,” and that He had said these things to her.

And behold, two of them were going that very day to a village named Emmaus, which was about seven miles from Jerusalem. And they were talking with each other about all these things which had taken place. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus Himself approached and began traveling with them. But their eyes were prevented from recognizing Him. And He said to them, “What are these words that you are exchanging with one another as you are walking?” And they stood still, looking sad. One of them, named Cleopas, answered and said to Him, “Are You the only one visiting Jerusalem and unaware of the things which have happened here in these days?” And He said to them, “What things?” And they said to Him, “The things about Jesus the Nazarene, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word in the sight of God and all the people, and how the chief priests and our rulers delivered Him to the sentence of death, and crucified Him. “But we were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel. Indeed, besides all this, it is the third day since these things happened. “But also some women among us amazed us. When they were at the tomb early in the morning, and did not find His body, they came, saying that they had also seen a vision of angels who said that He was alive. “Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just exactly as the women also had said; but Him they did not see.” And He said to them, “O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! “Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?” Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures. And they approached the village where they were going, and He acted as though He were going farther. But they urged Him, saying, “Stay with us, for it is getting toward evening, and the day is now nearly over.” So He went in to stay with them. When He had reclined at the table with them, He took the bread and blessed it, and breaking it, He began giving it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized Him; and He vanished from their sight. They said to one another, “Were not our hearts burning within us while He was speaking to us on the road, while He was explaining the Scriptures to us?”

And they got up that very hour and returned to Jerusalem, and found gathered together the eleven and those who were with them saying, “The Lord has really risen and has appeared to Simon.” They began to relate their experiences on the road and how He was recognized by them in the breaking of the bread. So when it was evening on that day while they were telling these things, the first day of the week, and when the doors were shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” But they were startled and frightened and thought that they were seeing a spirit. And He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? “See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when He had said this, He showed them His hands and His feet and His side. While they still could not believe it because of their joy and amazement, He said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave Him a piece of a broiled fish; and He took it and ate it before them. The disciples then rejoiced when they saw the Lord.

So Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.” Now He said to them, “These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and He said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”You are witnesses of these things. “And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”

But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples were saying to him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.” After eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors having been shut, and stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.” Then He said to Thomas, “Reach here with your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand and put it into My side; and do not be unbelieving, but believing.” Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.”

Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.

After these things Jesus manifested Himself again to the disciples at the Sea of Tiberias, and He manifested Himself in this way. Simon Peter, and Thomas called Didymus, and Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, and the sons of Zebedee, and two others of His disciples were together. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will also come with you.” They went out and got into the boat; and that night they caught nothing. But when the day was now breaking, Jesus stood on the beach; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. So Jesus said to them, “Children, you do not have any fish, do you?” They answered Him, “No.” And He said to them, “Cast the net on the right-hand side of the boat and you will find a catch.” So they cast, and then they were not able to haul it in because of the great number of fish. Therefore that disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord.” So when Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put his outer garment on (for he was stripped for work), and threw himself into the sea. But the other disciples came in the little boat, for they were not far from the land, but about one hundred yards away, dragging the net full of fish. So when they got out on the land, they saw a charcoal fire already laid and fish placed on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish which you have now caught.” Simon Peter went up and drew the net to land, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three; and although there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples ventured to question Him, “Who are You?” knowing that it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and the fish likewise. This is now the third time that Jesus was manifested to the disciples, after He was raised from the dead.

So when they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Tend My lambs.” He said to him again a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Shepherd My sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, “Do you love Me?” And he said to Him, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.” Jesus said to him, “Tend My sheep. “Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to gird yourself and walk wherever you wished; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will gird you, and bring you where you do not wish to go.” Now this He said, signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when He had spoken this, He said to him, “Follow Me!” Peter, turning around, saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; the one who also had leaned back on His bosom at the supper and said, “Lord, who is the one who betrays You?” So Peter seeing him said to Jesus, “Lord, and what about this man?” Jesus said to him, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow Me!” Therefore this saying went out among the brethren that that disciple would not die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but only, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you?” This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and wrote these things, and we know that his testimony is true. And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written.

But the eleven disciples proceeded to Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had designated. When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some were doubtful. And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

And He led them out as far as Bethany, and He lifted up His hands and blessed them. While He was blessing them, He parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they, after worshiping Him, returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple praising God.

 

Conclusions

The first paragraph in my harmonization contains a sticky issue- the time at which the women arrived at the tomb. Mark indicates that it was “when the sun had risen,” Luke says that it was “at early dawn,” but John records that it was “while it was still dark.” I decided that Matthew’s version, “as it began to dawn,” was a good compromise between the admittedly minor differences in details.

The second paragraph comes solely from Matthew, and I have chosen a translation which indicates that the earthquake occurred in the pluperfect tense, that is, it happened in the past before the events described there. I understand that there is a great deal of debate about the choice of this tense, but I decided to err on the side of harmonization, for the benefit of this exercise.

The third paragraph also contains a contested issue- whether men or angels appear at the tomb. A common argument is that the authors who describe men intend for their readers to understand them to be angels. Since only one gospel explicitly calls them angels, I decided to use ‘men’ as the description in my harmonization.

The fifth paragraph also contains a troubling passage- that of Mark, who records that the women were afraid, and spoke to no one. This seems to be in direct contradiction to the other gospels, which record the women as going directly to the disciples and reporting what they had seen. In addition, Matthew characterizes them as joyful, not afraid. I have omitted the Markan characterization, since I can find no way to resolve it with the other accounts. I conclude this to be the first of the irresolvable contradictions between the accounts.

From the sixth paragraph onward the Markan account ends, and I see a wide disparity between the other gospels after this point. There is a small amount of overlap between Matthew and Luke, but for the most part the accounts are vastly different, shown by the large amount of monochromatic text. The gospel of John is completely separate from the other two gospels after that point, and there is absolutely no overlap between them. It has been suggested that this phenomenon is caused by the lack of a Markan narrative for the other three Evangelists to base their final narratives on. Without this common narrative, a wide disparity between details should be expected.

The major contradiction in this harmonization is evidenced by the tears of Mary Magdalene, derived from the text of John. In the eighth paragraph, Mary stands outside the empty tomb, weeping because she doesn’t know the location of Jesus’ body. She speaks with the same two angels that were mentioned previously as ‘men’, and even turns around to see the resurrected Jesus, but doesn’t recognize him. I find this behavior unbelivable, considering that in the fifth paragraph, she along with the other women see Jesus, recognize him, and worship at his feet. Why does Mary, having seen the risen Jesus so soon before (only the time required to run from the tomb to the disciples and back again), wonder about the location of his body, and even not recognize him when she sees him a second time?

The reason for this contradiction, I believe, is because the Synoptic gospels record the angel’s appearance and the appearance of Jesus before the disciples are told and visit the tomb, while John records the angels appearing only after the disciples visit the tomb. Because of this change in narrative chronology, a harmonization illustrates this glaring contradiction.

I decided to end this harmonization with the ascension in Luke. No other gospel account records an ascension; Matthew ends with the Great Commission, and John ends with the nebulous suggestion that Jesus’ ministry after his resurrection was productive enough to fill countless volumes with his deeds. The locations are also different between the three- John ends at the Sea of Tiberias, Matthew ends at a mountain in Galilee, and Luke ends in Bethany. I don’t consider this a contradiction in the context of this harmonization- just a lot of moving about by Jesus and the disciples.

In conclusion, I have found one external and one internal contradiction in my harmonization. I am certain that a more rigorous analysis could show more, but it was my intent to be as lenient as possible. However, despite my leniency, contradictions are apparent. I hope that this exercise will be as beneficial to others as it has been to me.

References   [ + ]

1. Mark: when the sun had risen Luke: at early dawn  John: while it was still dark
2. The tense of this event is debatable. For the convenience of this harmonization, I will assume the pluperfect.
3. Matthew: an angel
4. Authentic Markan testimony ends here.
5. Mark: for trembling and astonishment had gripped them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

The Misplaced Magi

Photo by Zachary Moore. A typical nativity display.

One of the frequent scenes of the Christmas season is the mounting of nativity displays, both in macro scale out in public (often with live actors and animals), as well as in micro scale in one’s own home. In the United States, such displays on public property have often prompted legal challenges, leading to Supreme Court decisions that restrict such spectacles unless other traditions are given equal time and opportunity in the commons. This has led to various and questionable outcomes, such as the perennial display of the Winter Solstice plaque by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, as well as the “Merry Christmas Bill” which was signed into law here in Texas last year by outgoing Governor Rick Perry.

These nativity scenes are typically popular among Christian congregations; it’s not too difficult to find one or more churches in any neighborhood that have one up on their property. And it’s not difficult to see why; some of the best nativity scenes I’ve ever visited have been like a mini-fair, with hot cocoa and peppermint candies for the kids, lots of live animals to visit and pet, and throngs of the faithful singing Christmas hymns. As a young Christian, this was a wonderful and faith-affirming part of the holiday season, second only to midnight candlelight services on Christmas Eve.

But from the time when I was in high school, it had occurred to me that there was an odd peculiarity about these nativity scenes that I just couldn’t shake.

The concept itself was fundamentally flawed.

That’s not to say that I viewed the entire nativity narrative as false, but as I studied the Bible, I noticed something that had not caught my attention when I was younger. Namely, that the narratives of Jesus’ birth in Matthew and Luke (the only two Gospels that attempt to report on this aspect of his biography) are significantly different. In particular, there was one critical detail that stuck out to me as an irritating inconsistency.

The Magi shouldn’t be there.

In the Gospel attributed to Matthew, the first chapter presents a long genealogy of Jesus, after which follows a short pericope describing his birth, but with virtually no description of the event at all. There is no census, no pregnant woman on a donkey, no overstuffed inn. There’s not even a mention of where this is supposed to be happening. The account simply says that “[Joseph] knew [Mary] not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.”

The next chapter begins with a new pericope, placing the birth of Jesus in Bethlemen in the days of Herod the king (information that was omitted previously), and brings “wise men from the east” onto the stage. In the Greek, these are recorded as μάγος ἀπό ἀνατολή (magos apo anatolē), or literally “magicians from the [place of the] rising of the sun.” There is no more information provided about their countries of origin, or indeed if they came from the same or different countries. Surprisingly, there is also no number given to describe how many of these “Magi” arrived in Jerusalem, meaning that the concept that there were three of them is but the first of many unsupported inferences that have been incorporated into their substantial legendarium.

According to later myths and traditions, these three Magi are named: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. An interpolation from Psalm 72 suggests that these three originated from Tarshish, Sheba, and Seba (ancient cities whose actual locations are under dispute, but could refer to Southern Arabia, East Africa, or Asia Minor). Some traditions identify Caspar as the oldest and Balthazar as the youngest, while others say that Melchior was the oldest, and Caspar was the youngest. Some traditions have Balthazar originating from Ethiopia, and depict him with black skin. Of course, outside the Western traditions, the names change significantly: the Syriac Church knows them as Larvandad, Hormisdas, and Gushnasaph; the Armenian Church knows them as Kagba, Badadilma, and Badadakharida; the Ethiopian Church knows them as Hor, Karsudan, and Basanater.

With so many names to choose from, why pick just three?

In fact, the number of the Magi in the Western tradition is normally set at three to correspond with the three gifts that are mentioned in Matthew’s Gospel (and referencing in part Isaiah 60): gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But aside from the expediency of myth (and adaptability for religious iconography), there’s no reason to assume that each Magus brought a single gift. And indeed, in the Eastern tradition the number of Magi is held to be twelve, such as in the apocryphal Syriac text “Revelation of the Magi.”

In this version of the Magi myth, they arrive in Jerusalem from the legendary country of “Shir,” transported magically with supernatural speed from one to the other. The “star” they report seeing is no ordinary astronomical body, but is in fact the celestial body of Christ himself in luminous display, a kind of “star-child.” (This astral Christ is also identified by Adam’s son Seth as having been positioned over the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, which had disappeared once Adam fell into sin.) After arriving in Bethlehem, the Magi find that the star-child descends into a cave, where he blesses them as apostles of the Gospel before sending them magically back to their homeland to evangelize their people.

Needless to say, Matthew’s story is far less exciting; after visiting the child Jesus at home in Bethlehem with his mother Mary, the Magi “departed to their own country,” avoiding Herod’s wrath and exiting the canon altogether.

So why do I say that the Magi have no place in the nativity scene? They’re clearly a part of the narrative, right? Well, they are, but the nativity scene as we know it doesn’t come to us from Matthew’s Gospel, it comes from Luke’s.

Luke’s Gospel has the most to tell us about the circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus, going as far back as including the nativity of his cousin, John the Baptist. (Though if the other Gospel writers were aware of Jesus’ familial relationship with John, they don’t mention it.) In this story, Mary is visited by an angel (in Matthew’s story it’s Joseph who received an angelic message), a census decree is issued, and the Holy Family packs their things for the town of Bethlehem. In Luke’s account, Joseph and Mary live originally in Nazareth, and are only on their way to Bethlehem because of the requirement of the census (which makes very poor historical sense), rather than in Matthew’s account, in which Jesus is born in Bethlehem apparently because that’s where his parents lived.

This is a crucial point, because in Luke’s Gospel, Mary and Joseph are foreigners to the little town of Bethlehem, which is why they were dependent on hotel accommodations at the end of their journey. It’s precisely because they didn’t have a place of their own, and because there was “no room at the inn,” that Jesus is born in a manger. It’s also in this version of the story that we have the heavenly hosts breaking forth into praise for God, to the fear and amazement of the “shepherds out in the field.” This is where St. Linus finds his monologue to assuage the doubts of Charlie Brown:

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

Luke 2:8-14, KJV

It’s marvelous stuff, and the shepherds immediately rush into Bethlehem to find this child, bringing us the classic nativity scene of the Holy Family, adoring shepherds, and the announcing angel clustered cozily in a barn-like diorama. But notice what ISN’T present in the scene: any indication of the visit of the Magi. Luke’s story moves immediately to Jesus’ circumcision, his presentation at the Temple in Jerusalem (no concern that he would be discovered by the bloodthirsty Herod, and likewise no terrified sojourn in Egypt!), and then finally a happy return to Nazareth.

Clearly, these two nativity accounts are at odds with each other. Even taken at face value, it seems impossible to reconcile the two: Matthew’s narrative is one of connected prophecies, in which every plot point is referenced back to some part of scripture (e.g., Mary being a virgin, Jesus being born in Bethlehem, the sojourn in Egypt, and the return to Nazareth). But in Luke’s narrative, we have a plot of connected proclamations, beginning with the angelic announcement of John’s birth, Jesus’ birth, the acknowledgement by the fetal John in the womb, followed by the massive celebration of the heavenly host and the modest recognition by the shepherds at the manger. In Matthew’s account, Jesus’ secretive birth echoes that of the Hebrew hero Moses (or possibly the Roman founder Romulus) who is an outlaw from birth, but in Luke’s account, Jesus is publicly acclaimed and comes from a law-abiding family that regularly participates in the religious establishment. In both versions, Jesus is the heir of David (legally or spiritually if not biologically) and a Galilean, born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth.

So why, then, does it matter if the nativity scenes we commonly see during the holiday season aren’t faithful to a literal reading of the Christian scriptures?

I would say that it doesn’t.

The nativity scene as we know it is flawed, to be sure. But the flaw itself is part of the beauty of the work, indeed, it’s the flaw that gives it the beauty. Rather than insist upon consistency for its own sake, I quite like the asymmetry of narrative elements from two competing stories crowding together, shoulder-to-shoulder, in a kind of posed, wabi-sabi display. Or, to put it another way, it’s the comfort of rusted gold in a reversal of the intent Chaucer’s parson gives his maxim:

To his sheep did he give this noble example, which he first set into action and afterward taught; these words he took out of the gospel, and this similitude he added also, that if gold will rust, what shall iron do?

Geoffrey Chaucer,  The Canterbury Tales, “The Prologue”

C2014Q2_Lovejoy_by_Paul_Stewart

Photo by Paul Stewart. https://www.flickr.com/photos/astrostew/15497693653/

That the grand and glorious traditions of the Church have managed to harmonize and synthesize two stories which are quite obviously at odds with each other on close inspection is itself a magnificent example of humanity’s capacity to find meaning in the mundane. Passing overhead as I write is the green comet Lovejoy, which will come closest to Earth tomorrow night (January 7th), not to return (if at all) for another 622 years. On the one hand, this is just another of many comets currently orbiting the Sun, a rather routine occurrence in our solar system. And yet this celestial traveller is also a reminder that there is more orbiting our moderately-sized star than just our own little rock, and indeed there is more to the Cosmos than we could ever hope to learn in our short lifetimes.

Like the “star-child” in “Revelation of the Magi,” this is also an ancient decoration on our tree of life, linked to the family of comets which supplied our ancient planet with the water necessary for biological development and evolution. There is magic in this, as what is simply and literally a frozen rock hissing steam into the vacuum becomes an emblem of our Cosmic inheritance pointing ahead into our future. This is not just a story of what has happened in the past, this is a story of what is happening and what will continue to happen to humanity. The Magi, misplaced though they may be in space and time, yet are a valuable reminder that the important events in our lives are all inexorably linked in the mythological tapestry common to all humanity; we look for signs in the stars because we see in them both our past and future.

So of course the Magi had to be there in the humble manger of David’s city; no matter where the individual storyteller places them, the myth demands that they be present to acknowledge the connection between Human and Cosmos. Indeed, the story is not meaningful to us despite the fluid mythology of its telling, it is meaningful to us because of it.

O Star of wonder, star of night
Star with royal beauty bright
Westward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to thy Perfect Light

John Henry Hopkins, Jr. “The Quest of the Magi”

The Thanksgiving Paradox

Tree“Yahweh gave, and Yahweh has taken away; blessed be the name of Yahweh.”

–Job 1:21

Several years ago, I was invited to represent the local atheist community at an interpath event held at the Unity Church of Dallas. There were all manners of religious traditions present, including several liberal forms of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, as well as a few dozen or so eclectic individuals who had adopted a kind of a mix-n-match approach to their religious worldview, blending certain aspects of Hinduism with various other aspects of Paganism, for example. It was an interesting cohort, to be sure, and I felt unexpectedly comfortable among this metaphysical diversity.

As the event drew to a close, the organizers announced that there would be a circular prayer, in which each of the invited participants would give a culminating invocation to their respective gods or goddesses to bring the proceedings to a close. As the circle drew around to my seat, I briefly considered remaining silent, but then at the last minute offered this supplication:

“Dear God in Heaven, thank you for giving me the intellectual capacity to disbelieve in You.”

After the event had ended, one of the younger Ahmadiyya Muslims in attendance approached me with a wry grin. “That was a funny prayer you offered,” he said. “I totally got the joke.”

I flashed him a smile in return, and said, “Thanks. But I was also being quite serious.”


As a child, the religious character of the Thanksgiving holiday was an obvious example of the manifest destiny concept with which most American history is colloquially taught. And the narrative most of us absorbed is full of justification for such gratitude: after fleeing religious persecution in England, the Separatist Dissenters sailed across the Atlantic on the Mayflower, landed and founded Plymouth Colony, starved through their first winter, and then were contacted by Samoset of the Native Abenaki tribe, who introduced them to Squanto, the last of the Native Patuxet tribe. According to the English Separtists’ accounts, Squanto not only provided them with crucial guidance in survival techniques, but he also negotiated a political treaty between them and Massasoit of the Wampanoag, culminating in a Thanksgiving feast that we memorialize each year on the fourth Thursday in November.

Except that’s not exactly all there is to the story.

The Separatists or “Pilgrims” as we call them were not the last English settlers to come, but neither were they the first. Squanto, the Pilgrims’ benefactor, had previously been kidnapped and enslaved by English explorers, taught their language, and trained as an interpreter. Upon returning to his homeland, he was kidnapped and enslaved again, to eventually be set free by kindly Spanish monks. When he finally did return home a second time, he found that the entire population of his tribe had been wiped out by disease just the year before, leaving him as the sole survivor. Indeed, the very reason why the Pilgrims chose the Patuxet’s former territory for Plymouth Colony was because the land had obviously been cleared and tended but was abandoned, precisely because of this plague, part of the legacy of the introduction of European pathogens to the Americas.

And following the happy Thanksgiving feast, things did not go so well for the Wampanoag. More English settlers, primarily Puritans, arrived in what they were calling “New England,” to the point where the Native Americans were now in the minority. Not all of these settlers were as interested in cohabitation as the original Pilgrims had been, and between recurrent disease outbreaks, pressure to covert Natives to Christianity and English culture, and also the violent retribution against Native attempts to reassert their sovereignty, their participation in America’s history was reduced to a mere footnote.

So looking back at the history of the event we celebrate every year, I have to wonder… is the gratitude of the Pilgrims enough to make up for the calamity of the Wamapoag? To say nothing of the utter disaster that characterized European/Native relations over the following four centuries?

And I feel much the same way about expressing gratitude to the divine.

Author J. Daniel Sawyer has remarked, though he doesn’t believe in God, he’d “like to have someone to say thanks to.” And that desire resonates with me, especially in the middle of an autumn walk through some particularly spectacular foliage. “Wouldn’t it be nice,” I sometimes think to myself on these occasions, “to know that someone was responsible for all of this natural beauty, and be able to thank them for the joy that I feel in this moment.”

But it’s a sentiment with strict demarcation.

Because I know too much about the natural world, and I know that for every fiery leaf that catches my eye, there is an innocent creature caught in an inferno and turned to ash. For every streaming cataract that captures my imagination, there is a pool of deadly water that imprisons a drowned child. For every soft breeze that tousles my hair and caresses my cheeks, there is a person smashed into oblivion by a raging tempest.

Consider perhaps, a painting so beautifully transcendent that its subject seems to connect right through into the center of your being, its composition so balanced and harmonious that it evokes an immediate and deep sense of peace and satisfaction, its colors so brilliant and textures so ideal that real life is dull and hazy by comparison. Such a work of art would demand the highest degree of respect and appreciation for the artist, would it not?

But then consider that the canvas for this magnum opus was cut, slowly and with the maximum possible amount of suffering, from the skin of a still-living person. And the pigments used to create the artwork were cunningly crafted from blood, drawn slowly from the same person, while she looked on in full conscious horror. And the brushes used to apply the paints to the canvas were fashioned from bones, cracked and wrenched violently from that same person’s fingers.

Would you still be able to enjoy that painting as you had originally?


What pains me most about offering gratitude to God is not simply reconciling the good things that happen with the bad. Even in a Godless Cosmos, there will be things that humans regard as good and evil; there is no inconsistency there. Because in a world without God, the existence of evil is either a failing of humanity or a happenstance of the apathetic Cosmos; two sources which I have no trouble reconciling and accepting. Instead, what I find myself unable to morally assent to is the prevalence of evil acts which no God worth the name could be inconvenienced to prevent, and yet which occur nonetheless. It would, for example, have been trivial for God to have introduced a strong genetic resistance to the smallpox virus in the Native peoples of the Americas. Such a small change would have had tremendous ramifications on the European colonization of this continent, and would have reduced the death and suffering of Squanto’s people by several orders of magnitude.

Now, theistic philosophers explain why this incrementally better God is not possible, citing any number of theodicies which almost-but-not-quite cover the entire range of natural and human evils we observe. But the same range of evils are consistent with a Godless existence as well; theists and atheists alike can agree that the worst of all human traits would manifest with or without a personal deity, and an impersonal Cosmos would hurl just as many bolts of destruction. So the paradox is that, it is only upon invocation of God that prayers of thanksgiving have any sense, but the tendency of that same God to balance the ledgers with calamity renders that thanksgiving senseless. That is to say, for every event God allows which inspire tears of joy, He also allows those which cause tears of despair. It is not necessarily the case that God has to play a zero-sum game, but it happens nonetheless. Would the Pilgrims have had as much to be thankful for in 1621 if the Patuxet were still living on their land, and if the larger Wampanoag confederation had not been decimated by European disease? Would America have risen to its level of prominence without centuries of slavery bolstering its national economy? Would I be able to enjoy the current privilege and safety I now have without the dripping blood of countless soldiers who are sent into warfare on my behalf?

As long as the God of classical theism cannot resolve this paradox any better than He did for His suffering servant Job, He is no God worth believing in. And yet still I wonder, is there not a God who could accomplish everything that inspires our gratitude without also allowing everything that provokes our pain? Such a God would, if He existed, be much more likely to earn my admiration, and certainly a much different prayer.

After the Advent

IMG_0796

“So come down from your mountain and stand where we’ve been

You know our breath is weak and our body thin.”

–Mumford and Sons, “Babel”

The Advent

Even if not embraced as historical event—the abdication of the ultimate power; the willing subjection of the self to conquer evil in a way that creates love—the Advent provides a sublime picture of the response to what ails us.

I’m stopped at a Buc-ee’s near Austin on my way to an early Christmas celebration with family in San Antonio. My wife is inside grabbing consumable essentials. I’m on my phone checking the Facebook news feed for social consumables. My chest tightens and my brain begins the long division that deciphers unimaginable atrocities through my wavering theological filter when I read that a town I had never heard of has experienced a pain I hope to always avoid. I latch onto the idea that children have been gunned down. My toddler is asleep in the back seat, blissfully unaware of the horror glowing from my screen. When I hear about things like this, my reaction is, Really, God? Selfishly, I don’t immediately pray for survivors, for friends, for neighbors, for those who have suffered inexplicable loss. I immediately pray for what I feel I’m losing in those times—my faith. And then it starts. I check the back seat again. My boy is safe. I had better park closer to the building. Probably need to face the storefront. I need to go to the bathroom so I’ll pull right up to the door, then when my wife gets in I’ll lock her and my son inside the car and set the alarm. I wish the key fob had some kind of alert on it. I’ll have my phone and she’ll have hers. God, please don’t let anything happen to them while I’m in the Buc-ee’s bathroom. It hits me: in order to pray, I need to trust the God I don’t trust right now. This terrible tension robs me of joy and of hope. God, please protect my family. Did those families pray the same thing that morning? Why did you not protect them? Are you able? Are you indifferent? How can I trust that this prayer will reach attentive ears? That it will reach willing ears? That my prayer makes any kind of difference to the God that watched this from afar? 

He came down from his mountain and stood where we’ve been. He embodied youthful innocence cut down by insanity. His family and friends shook and sat devastated at the news. His story was not over. And neither is the story of Newtown. Nor the story of our broken world, replete with Newtownian physics. Our answer to the tragedy is love. It provides no “answer”—no satisfying logical conclusion, no scientific demonstration, no psychological evaluation, no retribution. It provides the direction, the power to move forward, the plan for continuing to create our world anew. Love moves into the destructive present and quells its acidic drip into weakened hearts. It promises to carry on and stand as the balm for roughened skins. Love moves into the disorder. Love takes steps, makes progress, comforts, and provides. It goes. It runs. The significance of the advent does not stand or fall with its historicity. I am not promoting demythologization here; if historically true, the advent is even grander than its ethical fodder. But the story of Christ’s coming into the world climaxes at the resurrection—the defeat of death, the ensuing outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the reinstatement of God’s people to reflect his loving image into the rest of the world. Precisely because people are infused with this love, and are commanded to love others, this message is historical here and now. It is the fact of loving people working together, creating, moving, going. The mobilization of an abdicating, sacrificing love cannot solve the logical problem of evil. It is not a “because” to any “why?” We may never receive or concoct a “because;” but we can always choose to respond in love—the perfect counter to any evil set on utter destruction.

The terrible event in Newtown has brought destruction; in its aftermath love can slow the spread and encourage us to build again.

The Truce on Christmas

Oh I’m a Christian holiday; I’m a symbol of original sin.
I’ve a pagan tree and a magical wreath and bow-tie on my chin!
Oh I’m a pagan heresy; I’m a tragical Catholic shrine
I’m a little bit shy, with a lazy eye, and a penchant for sublime.
Oh I’m a mystical apostasy; I’m a horse with a fantasy twist
Though I play all night with my magical kite, people say I don’t exist.
For I make no full apology; for the category I reside
I’m a mythical mess with a treasury chest; I’m a construct of your mind.

-Sufjan Stevens, “Christmas Unicorn

Though an atheist, I still enjoy putting up Christmas decorations, and I’m not alone in that regard.

On my fireplace, a long plastic evergreen bough snakes between an Irish Santa Claus, a Polish Angel, and a sitting Buddha. To the right is my childhood Christmas teddy bear, wearing a red sleeping cap trimmed with white fur, and to the left are Christmas cards from friends and family. In my refrigerator, a turkey from some Muslim friends waits patiently for the tandoori treatment, while homemade peppermint ice cream slowly freezes below. On my Christmas tree, fragile glass ornaments from my wife’s family intermingle with clunky ceramic trinkets from my youth as well as those I’ve collected from my various skeptical and atheist organizations. Hanging behind it are stockings for our son, our two cats, and one that reminds children to fear the wrath of Krampus. Opposite the tannenbaum are a family of snowmen surrounding a menorah, driedel, and gelt. All are framed by glittering white lights that wash the entrance to my house with a warm glow, echoed by seasonal candles in every window.

I think Tertullian would approve:

“Let, therefore, them who have no light, light their lamps daily; let them over whom the fires of hell are imminent, affix to their posts, laurels doomed presently to burn: to them the testimonies of darkness and the omens of their penalties are suitable. You are a light of the world, and a tree ever green. If you have renounced temples, make not your own gate a temple.”

-Tertullian of Carthage, “On Idolatry”

No surprise then, to find out that this patristic Grinch didn’t celebrate Christmas. Indeed, it wasn’t even until the end of the Fourth Century that St. John Chrysostom in Antioch sought to make the 25th of December the official day to recognize Christ’s birth. A day which, as it happened, also celebrated the birth of the Unconquered Sun (Natalis Solis Invictus), though Chrysostom dismissed the coincidence: “But they call it the ‘Birthday of the Unconquered.’ Who indeed is so unconquered as Our Lord…? Or, if they say that it is the birthday of the Sun, He is the Sun of Justice.”

Thus the early Christian fathers snubbed the original “reason for the season,” namely axial tilt.

Cultures the world over, and throughout human history, have celebrated the annual death and rebirth of the sun, typically with feasting, lights, decorations, and singing. These serve a practical purpose as well as symbolic; the solstice is the darkest of the dark days of winter, when good cheer is at a premium; also heralding the beginning of the coldest months of the year, during which extra livestock become a liability. At this time, the beasts are slaughtered, the new wine is drunk, and the candles are lit while all engage in revelry.

“The delusion you’re trying to cure is called ‘Christmas,’ Duncan. It’s the crazy notion that the longest, darkest nights can be the warmest and brightest. And when we all agree to support each other in that insanity, something even crazier happens. It becomes true. Works every year, like clockwork.”

-Community, “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas

In many ways, the history of Christmas is the history of Christianity itself. As the Western and Eastern churches solidified their power and influence over Eurasia, Christmas adapted itself to the particular cultural mores of each society. The Catholic bishop of a minor Turkish town, whose only notable career achievement was being present during the routing of Arianism during the Council of Nicaea, inexplicably spawned a tradition of gift-giving among the children of Germanic people who lived a thousand miles away. Though the precise origins of this practice are lost to the mists of history, the myth has clearly eclipsed the man.

Saint Nicholas, usually with an unsavory helper (such as the demonic Krampus in Austria, Knecht Ruprecht in Germany, or Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands), settled into the well-worn route first used by the perennial visits of Odin during the midwinter festival of Yule. With Nick and friends were blended other traditions, such as the blood-sacrificing Wrenboys among the Celts, the harvest-celebrating Wassailers among the British, and the life-affirming Mistletoe throughout Northern Europe. Thus did Holy Mother Church pacify the newly-baptized heathens, by recontextualizing their idiosyncrasies within the ever-expanding boundaries of orthodoxy.

Undoubtedly, it was this Catholic indulgence of paganism that gave the Reformers absolute fits about the holiday. Martin Luther evicted the papish Nicholas and conscripted the Christ-Child himself to distribute holiday presents, and John Calvin (though he personally found moderate Christmas celebrations acceptable) through his theology influenced the Calvinist Reformers to abolish the holiday in Geneva in the 16th century, as well as in the Scottish Presbyterian Church.

“…holy days of certain saints commanded by man, such as be all those that the Papists have invented, as the feasts (as they term them) of apostles, martyrs, virgins, of Christmas, Circumcision, Epiphany, Purification, and other fond feasts of our lady. Which things, because in God’s scriptures they neither have commandment nor assurance, we judge them utterly to be abolished from this realm; affirming further, that the obstinate maintainers and teachers of such abominations ought not to escape the punishment of the civil magistrate.”

-Church of Scotland, “First Book of Discipline (1560)

This theology emigrated to the United States with the British Puritans, and though they could not always ban festivities, made it reasonably clear that European-style revelry was not welcome in the New World. As Cotton Mather suggested (when speaking of not celebrating Christmas), “Good Men may love one another, and may treat one another with a most Candid Charity, while he that Regardeth a Day, Regardeth it unto the Lord, and he that Regardeth not the Day, also shows his Regard unto the Lord, in his not Regarding of it…” Indeed, the traditional American Christmas was in danger of being stillborn, were it not for the “Knickerbockers,” a literary circle that included Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and Clement Clarke Moore. The former was the author of much of America’s early mythology, and reimagined the rowdy English customs of yore as quaint, cozy, and centered on the family. The latter is best known as the poet responsible for the 1822 verse “A Visit From Saint Nicholas,” (also known as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas), which reoriented the European figure for an American audience.

It was just this gift-giving character that thrilled Yankee merchants eager to sell toys and other trinkets to parents who were increasingly becoming softer in their child-rearing. Thus this refocus on the commercial aspects of the holiday season also depended on the emphasis of familial connection, both of which persist to modern day. Between Thomas Nast and the Coca-Cola Company, the standardization of the Santa Claus imagery and costume by the beginning of the 20th century had become an internationally-recognized signal of the season. From there, it was really only a matter of time before Kris Kringle replaced the Kristkindle as the primary representative of the holiday, along with the department store endorsements, coruscating displays of excess, and pink aluminum Christmas trees that lead many to recoil from the season’s consumerism (though Libanius noted similar excess regarding Saturnalia/Kalends in the fourth century).

“I just don’t understand Christmas, I guess. I like getting presents and sending Christmas cards and decorating trees and all that, but I’m still not happy. I always end up feeling depressed.”

-Charlie Brown, “A Charlie Brown Christmas

As a boy, one of my earliest memories of the holiday is of the Ku Klux Klan seeking to and succeeding in placing a cross on Cincinnati’s Fountain Square, in competition with a menorah that had been erected to recognize the Jewish solstice festival of Hanukkah. Although the specific ramifications of the First Amendment to the Constitution were beyond my grasp at the time, I do recall understanding that, at least within a public space, even if one doesn’t like the message being presented, fair is fair.

Which is a concept seemingly inaccessible to the likes of Bill O’Reilly and his co-combatants in the War on Christmas:

Though his protestations and presumptions are likely to send atheists and Christians alike into apoplexy, O’Reilly voices the oft-irrational concerns of the common American: in this case, that the godless heathens are coming to take our Christmas trees away. And yet that couldn’t be further from the truth. What the long-suffering President of American Atheists (and, I daresay, most of the infidel contingent he represents) would like to see is for the holiday to resign from its government position, and instead to spend its time exclusively in the private sector. And certainly, when it comes to overtly religious displays (like a nativity scene or an angel or a cross) on public property, I think Silverman is justified in his push for state neutrality.

But I’m willing to consider a truce at this point.

In part because I love Christmas so much, in part because squabbling over the public square diminishes my enjoyment of the season, and in part because I think the holiday has already outgrown its religious heritage, especially here in America. Here’s what I propose: Christmas shall henceforth be treated as a secular holiday open to the interpretation and enjoyment of all. Christians are welcome to revel in the theological implications of the day’s symbolism, while atheists and others may pick and choose those aspects of the day which resonate with their own particular values. The Christmas tree in the square will be a malleable and inclusive symbol, able to support the weight of Magi, Menorahs, and Mohammed, as well as any other marginalized culture that would appreciate a little bit of cheer in the darkness of winter (including we joyless atheists).

Black night behind the tamarisks—the owls begin their chorus—
As the conches from the temple scream and bray.
With the fruitless years behind us, and the hopeless years before us,
Let us honor, O my brother, Christmas Day!
Call a truce, then, to our labors—let us feast with friends and neighbors,
And be merry as the custom of our caste;
For if “faint and forced the laughter,” and if sadness follow after,
We are richer by one mocking Christmas past.

-Rudyard Kipling, “Christmas in India

Is such a truce possible? Would it hold? I think so, and I think that many of us have already negotiated something similar with our own consciences. After all, if anything has been demonstrated over the past couple centuries in America, it’s that Christmas is a major part of our culture, and it has been able to adjust to the demands of a changing history. I think it can handle a few atheist decorations on the branch.

National Day of Prayer & Reason

All Christians are aware of and participate in the National Day of Prayer, right? Not really. For the younger and saucier amongst us, the word “National” does not sit very well. Add to that the identification with certain ministries and ministry leaders and we start reaching for the Pepto.

Before this year I had only a vague idea of what the National Day of Prayer was. In high school some students met once per year for “See You at the Pole,” which signifies a National Day of Prayer for students. In case you are unfamiliar with this event, it plays out like it sounds: students meet around their school’s flagpole every fourth Wednesday in September and pray. I don’t know what they pray for but I’m assuming they pray for pretty epic stuff on a day like that.

Given the titles of these events, complete with patriotic hash-tags like “National” and “Flagpole,” the clear intention for the praying participants is identification with our nation’s religious heritage in a way that supposedly reinforces that identification for those who are unaware or skeptical. I used “religious” on purpose because we are not a “Christian” nation. If we were, then the founder of our religion—Jesus Christ—is glaringly absent from our documents. Furthermore, the pitiful “understood” connection between being a “true Christian” and a Republican renders interdenominational agreement (not to mention evangelism) impossible. Lastly, we take for granted a vague “majority” that occasional polls seem to support, when in reality different samplings could demonstrate the opposite case that the majority are not Christian in any solid sense of the word.

The call for unity amongst the vast, incoherent amalgamation of widely differing viewpoints is respectable, but also naïve. It’s the outside-of-church equivalent to showing up only on Christmas Eve or Easter Sunday; it’s nice and we all look like we have it together, but the rest of the time consists of in-fighting and slandering of those to whom we allegedly feel a strong bond. Anyone can force the kids together for just one nice picture at Thanksgiving, but that snapshot fools only those who are unaware of the turmoil. Or who don’t know what siblings are.

Too often we say to one another, “All we can do is pray.” This sounds fishy to me. All we can do? If we are indeed praying to a God who sees, knows, loves, and acts, and if our prayers have some kind of effect on that God, then our first inclination should be to pray. This is akin to someone saying, “All I can do to counter the snake venom in your leg is give you the antidote. But I think first we should put some band-aids on there.” We must take action when we need to; but prayer and action are not mutually exclusive. We can pray and do something. Prayer is indeed a mysterious thing and we do not know how exactly it affects God nor what kind of answer we can expect from prayer. But we do know that we are commanded to love. It’s right there in our Bibles, regardless of translation or version.

Instead of calling attention to ourselves and only reminding the rest of the nonreligious country why we are so annoying and sound so self-righteous, let’s do what Jesus said and not pray in the open for everyone to see (Mt. 6.5–6). Meanwhile—while we are praying—let’s do that other thing Jesus said and love people, hang out with “sinners” (Mk. 2.15–17) and be “a light” (Mt. 5.13–16.) If we work on those things, a National Day of Prayer might actually make some sense outside of our bubbles.

 

The National Day of Reason

The “National Day of Reason” exists for the sole purpose of tweaking the collective noses of those who promote the “National Day of Prayer,” namely Shirley Dobson and her husband’s supporters in the Christian Right. Or so it might seem to some.

But I like to think of it as closing the gap of inclusiveness that the National Day of Prayer obviously sought to bridge, despite its origins in the reflexive religiosity of the 1950’s. Look, I know that American isn’t a Christian nation, but there’s a hell of a lot of them here. Appealing to the spiritual ties that bind help bring everyone together, and that makes good psychological sense as well. But the National Day of Reason picks up where Prayer leaves off, and includes everyone, not just religious Americans, in a day that encourages reflective contemplation about solutions for our country’s woes.

Representative Pete Stark, the only acknowledged atheist (technically a nontheistic Unitarian) in Federal government, issued a proclamation of the National Day of Reason on the floor of Congress. He said:

“…reason must be the guiding principle of our democracy. In a nation of citizens from so many different backgrounds and beliefs, the only way we can solve our problems is through cultivating intelligent, moral, and ethical interactions among all people.”

This is a crucial point. Appealing to reason isn’t necessarily a condemnation of religion or those who have faith in the supernatural. Reason is accessible to all, no matter what their cultural heritage, and no matter what gods they worship. It isn’t the domain or prerogative of any group of people, and I hope that when we come together as a country, we can use it as a common ground to seek and craft real solutions.