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Five Pieces of Wood

January 2, 2003

Five Pieces of Wood

(Following is the text of the homily delivered by the cardinal at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve in St. Patrick's Cathedral.)

My dear friends:

Tonight we gather here in our beloved cathedral to celebrate Christmas by praying together the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The beauty of this great church brings to mind another marvelous house of worship halfway across the world, about which I would like to speak to you at this moment in our Eucharistic prayer.

The church's name is St. Mary Major, or more exactly: The Basilica of St. Mary Major, one of the four principal basilicas of Rome.

St. Mary Major is an incredibly handsome edifice, 280 feet long, filled with masterpieces of fresco and mosaic, and crowned with a splendid, gilded ceiling. Many consider it the most magnificent building in the Eternal City.

And perhaps it is.

However, on Christmas Eve, the artistic and architectural merits of the basilica fade into the background. The attention of the faithful who come for Midnight Mass is rather focused on five jagged pieces of wood held together by a tangle of wire and preserved in a little glass case beneath the main altar. The pieces of wood have for centuries been said to have been part of the manger in which the Christ Child was laid on the night of His birth.

Whether or not they truly are what they are said to be is of little importance. The message, however, which they deliver is not only important: it is the central, essential message of Christmas.

What Christmas tells us first and foremost is that our God loves each and every one of us without limit. That love was, of course, most powerfully demonstrated when Jesus Christ, the Son of the Eternal Father, was stretched across two other jagged pieces of wood on Calvary's Hill to buy us back from our sinfulness.

It would be impossible to imagine a more compelling statement of total and uncompromising love. The Father sent his Son to become one of us; and the Son, in the words of St. Paul, "emptied himself." He set aside all manifestation of divinity and, again as St. Paul puts it, "took on the form of a slave." Thus, in obedience to the will of his Heavenly Father, he handed himself over to death for our salvation, indeed, to death on a cross.

There could be no greater expression of love.

But the demonstration of this divine and unbounded love began well before Calvary. Just consider how the only-begotten Son of God first appeared among us.

His mother was a poor girl of perhaps 15 or 16 years of age, engaged to a young man whom we think to have been around 18 or 19. The young man was a carpenter, or more precisely: a joiner of wood, what today we would call a construction worker. In obedience to the edict of a vain and foolish emperor, they had come to a backwater town called Bethlehem, the hometown of the young man, to be counted in a worldwide census. Their journey had taken from four to five days. They very likely walked most of the way. And the girl was pregnant.

In Bethlehem they took up residence in a place where animals were kept. It may have been a cave. It may have been a stable. It may have been the ground floor of a residence - the ground floor where brute beasts, not human beings, were to take their rest.

And when the girl brought forth her Child, he was wrapped in strips of rough cloth and laid in a manger, that is to say, in a trough out of which an ass or an ox were to be fed.

This is how he came, the Son of the Eternal Father. The five jagged pieces of wood tell the story. To prove his love, the cross was not enough. There was no hurt, there was no humiliation he would not endure for our redemption. The Almighty loved us beyond all measure, and the five jagged pieces of wood give quiet, unmistakable testimony to this fact, this beautiful truth of our beloved Faith.

The Christmas message, however, has a second element, closely allied to the first; and again its most telling articulation comes toward the end of the life here on earth of the Son of God made man.

Shortly before journeying to Jerusalem to face his passion and death, Jesus delivered what many would count the most potent and riveting of his sermons. In it he describes the final judgment of humankind. On one side of the judgment throne of the Almighty, he places those who will spend their eternity in the loving embrace of the Heavenly Father. They were those, he explained, who had fed the hungry, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger, visited the imprisoned, and - in short - cared for the hurting. And he announced that it was he they had fed, clothed, welcomed, visited and cared for. He was one with the hurting. They were he, and he was they.

In Bethlehem too, he drove home that mystical and marvelous identification with those in pain and need. Born in a refuge for animals, cradled in a trough and visited by shepherds, the lowliest and least esteemed inhabitants of the land: this is how he entered into the world. Toward the end of his life he would preach that he and the hurting were one. In Bethlehem, one they were.

The five jagged pieces of wood again deliver their message, and it is a message that we need to hear and accept. Like the love of God for all of us, the love that God requires from all of us for those in our midst who are hurting is an essential lesson of Christmas. It must not be ignored. It must not be soft-pedaled. It must not be forgotten.

And these people who are "hurting," who are they? Permit me to mention just a few.

We start with those who come to us from faraway lands, fleeing poverty and pursuing basic human dignity for themselves and their families. They are remarkably like the couple that arrived on foot in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago without a place to stay. They are poor, they are frightened, and they need - most urgently need - our understanding and our help.

Most of them do not speak the official language of this land. Few understand our laws, our customs, our expectations and our ways. They fall easily into the hands of exploiters. They accept wages unworthy of their sweat. And they are he, Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God. How do I know this? He told me in a mighty sermon when he was a full grown man, and earlier in a humble cradle of rough wood when he was a newborn child.

We move on to the elderly poor in this great metropolitan community of ours. How many are struggling to pay ever-rising rents and ever-more-costly food bills? How many have abandoned even hope for proper medical care? How many have not had a visitor in weeks, months, even years?

We all know of such people. We say that we respect their age, their experience and the contributions they made to society when they were young and productive. They want to believe us, and they will when we look closely and see Jesus Christ in them. For in them he is; and in them he awaits our love, our compassion and our caring.

We add impoverished single mothers to our list of the hurting. Many - all too many - are the age of the young girl who walked to Bethlehem with her construction-worker spouse. It is tempting to dismiss them - these young mothers - as unworthy of our attention. On all sides we hear that they are shiftless and irresponsible; and quite often they are just that. Still, they need someone to care about them, to guide them, to counsel them, even to sacrifice for them.

They may reject our concern at first, but we may never reject them or stop being concerned. For they are he, the Child in the wooden trough, the Savior on the wooden cross. And their offspring? They are innocent, needy children of God. Indeed, the Son of God insists that they and their mothers are he.

And then there are the chronically ill without medical care, the fathers of families without jobs, the children without parents and the lonely without the consolation of even a brief note or an occasional telephone call. The list goes on and on; and it weighs on our consciences just as it should, and just as the newborn King wants it to.

The message of Christmas is not all that complicated or abstruse. It is simply a message of love - the love of God for you and me and our love for him both in himself and in those who among us are hurting. The five pieces of wood in the splendid Roman basilica overpower the magnificence that surrounds them. They have a sermon to deliver, a Christmas sermon; and if we study them closely with open hearts, what they have to say will hit home.

We began with a church in Rome. Allow me to conclude with another church, a church in the Holy Land, a church in the City of David, where Christ the Lord was born.

By the end of the first century A.D., a house of prayer of some sort had been constructed in Bethlehem over what the faithful maintained was the site of Christ's birth. Sometime around 120 A.D., this edifice became a source of apprehension for the Emperor of Rome. His name was Hadrian, and he was anxious that the Gospel of the Preacher from Nazareth not take hold in his empire.

Hence, with an imperial decree, he had the house of prayer pulled down and built over it a temple to the pagan god, Adonis, a temple that he hoped would erase forever all memory of the One whose coming to earth the demolished house of prayer was to keep alive.

Just a little less than two centuries later, another emperor had taken the throne. He saw himself as a champion of Jesus Christ, and he was anxious to celebrate the places in the Holy Land where key events in the life of the Lord had occurred. About the location of one such place he was quite sure. Hadrian had unintentionally guaranteed that. Thus, the Emperor Constantine confidently sent his builders to construct the Church of the Nativity in Manger Square in Bethlehem - at least the walls, the main portals and the pavement of the church we have today.

This night, that church will perhaps be virtually empty. Certainly, it will not be thronged for Christmas Mass this year as it has been thronged on many Christmases over the past almost 17 centuries. The sadness of this, indeed, the tragedy of it, is a source of pain and even fear.

Tonight we have come to pray - to pray for ourselves, to pray for our loved ones, to pray for our city, to pray for our nation, and - in a very particular way - to pray for those who most need our compassion and our caring. But we come as well to pray for peace - peace in our hearts, peace in our streets and, above all, peace among nations across the globe.

Some many not fully endorse that last element of our prayer. So be it. We claim no extraordinary knowledge of international affairs. We have no special insights into the strategies and purposes of the powerful in this frightening world of ours. All the same, high above the refuge of the Child in the manger, we hear voices from heaven pleading for peace; and with unlimited faith and hope, we gladly join their song.

Edward Cardinal Egan

Archbishop of New York

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