By Harry T. Cook
The assignment was to tell Journal readers why I celebrate Christmas and why Christmas is important to me. Why me? Because, I suppose, it is fairly well known that I have spent almost 60 years aspiring to be a Christian, because I am a priest of a Christian church and because I am a former journalist – i.e., I can write comprehensible English prose.
In another way, I am an unlikely choice for this assignment because I do not believe most of the things Christians are supposed to believe. I think the proclamations of Jesus’ virgin birth, resurrection and ascension into heaven are ridiculous and, demonstrably, are derivations of Greek mythologies of dying and rising gods that were a dime a dozen in the first century.
We have no idea where and under what circumstances Jesus was born. We know, in fact, hardly any reliable thing about such a person. Two gospel writers among many place his birth in Bethlehem, yet he hailed from Nazareth, a remote Galilean village far from the City of David.
But that is the clue. The messiah, it was said in Hebrew lore, would be a latter-day scion of the great David whose ancestral home was Bethlehem. Thus myth-makers would take great pains to place Jesus’ birth there.
As of Jesus’ linage, who knows? Was he a descendant of David? And does it matter one way or the other? It was only to the gospel writers Matthew and Luke to whom it mattered. Other New Testament writers mention neither Jesus’ birth nor his birthplace.
Yet it is Luke’s story that sticks in our minds, because the imagery of the midnight visit of angels to lowly shepherds has long since captured the collective imagination. Check out the ubiquitous nativity scenes at this time of year.
Luke’s familiar story (“and there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night”) is a clue as to the real meaning of what we call Christmas. Luke’s elegantly mixed metaphor of an infant king being born in a cattle feeding trough in an out-building of a cheap hotel with divine messengers appearing to shepherds – people at the absolute bottom of the socio-economic heap – adds up to a picture that is related to Luke’s exquisitely political phraseology: “He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and hath exalted the humble and meek.”
Luke was meaning to tell us that Jesus’ ethic (“turn the other cheek, walk the second mile, treat others as you want to be treated”) may represent the divine design for peace on earth, goodwill to man.
In his wonderfully imaginative tone poem of the angels and the shepherds, Luke was meaning to tell us that God is concerned first with the poor, and that, whatever God may be, she is not impartial.
Which means that any religion that dares name Jesus as a founder had damned well better have to do with economics, public policy and politics where the care and welfare of disadvantaged human beings are concerned.
That is why I celebrate Christmas, because beyond the holly and the ivy I can glimpse the prophet of Nazareth and hear the Second Isaiah saying, “‘Comfort ye, comfort ye my people,’ thus saith your God. ‘Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together’.”
I celebrate Christmas because I identify with that vision – a vision that is likely not shared by the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal and its sycophants, whose cramped vision is of short-term wealth and comfort of the few and the devil may care for the rest of us.
Think shepherds. Think sheep.
Harry T. Cook, an Episcopal priest for 30 years, spent 8½ years as a Free Press reporter, assistant city editor and editorial writer. In 1987 he became rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Clawson. His wife, Sue Chevalier, is a locked-out Free Press copy editor.
Twenty years ago, during the Detroit newspaper strike, I clipped this essay from The Detroit Sunday Journal, which was published by the striking newspaper workers. Harry T. Cook’s website has an archive of more recent work.