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Transformation

January 4, 2007

Transformation

Following is Cardinal Egan's Christmas homily which he delivered at Midnight Mass in St. Patrick's Cathedral.

Our deacon, dear friends, has just read for us the Christmas story as told in the Gospel of St. Luke. It is a beautiful narrative that has inspired some of the greatest painters of all times, from Fra Angelico and Raffaello to Rubens and Rembrandt. Throughout the Christmas season, we admire reproductions of their works in magazines, on greeting cards and in our books of prayer; and they never cease to delight.

There is, however, another approach to telling the Christmas story in art which is no less familiar and no less delightful. I refer, of course, to the Christmas crèche, such as the one we have at the head of the left aisle here in our beloved Cathedral.

Historians report that in the mid-300s, Pope Liberius offered Christmas Mass on an altar over what seems to have been a crèche and that Pope Gregory III had a particularly elaborate crèche fashioned for his Christmas Mass in the mid-700s. It was, however, St. Francis of Assisi who made the crèche the popular expression of Christmas that it is today, when in 1223 in the little Italian town of Greccio he built next to an altar on which Midnight Mass was to be celebrated a stable with animals and a manger inside. A custom came into being and quickly caught on throughout Europe.

By the 1600s the crèche was to be found in every corner of the continent; and by the beginning of the 1800s huge crèche scenes were being installed in the churches of Naples and much of southern Italy, scenes that included not only the Holy Family, shepherds, a stable, animals and a manger, but also scores of skillfully carved statues of men, women and children of every profession, occupation and stratum of society.

Early last January I was in Rome for meetings of a Vatican office to which I have been assigned as a kind of consultant. We finished up on a Saturday morning. Hence, I was free to spend the afternoon strolling on my own through the familiar streets of the Eternal City. In due course, I made my way to an old church that has for many years had much to say to me about Christmas.

Inside, on the left, there is a chapel area which is covered by a panel of glass about 20 feet wide and extending from the floor almost to the ceiling. If you strain your eyes, you can see a bit of what is behind the glass. However, no straining is necessary. For there is a little slot in the glass in which you are free to drop a half-Euro coin; and when you do, what is behind the glass lights up.

It is a marvelously detailed Neapolitan-style crèche in which you see a splendid Nativity scene as well as an entire country village in miniature, with barns, houses with lights in the windows, wagons drawn by horses, and brilliantly painted statues of peasant figures distributed along narrow paths and winding lanes.

It is a lovely scene, and I was completely taken with it until I noticed that something was missing. During the years in which I lived in Rome, I often took visitors to see this particular crèche; and while I was happy to show them the carved figures and charming setting, what I especially liked to highlight was a little wooden plaque to the right of the stable with an inscription on it that read in Italian more or less as follows:

     The lights are on for only a short while.
     Study the scene with the eyes of faith.
     Do so with a prayer on your lips.
     And let the message of Christmas find its way into your heart.

I went into the sacristy of the church to ask what had become of the plaque. No one seemed to know. I returned to the crèche, deposited another half-Euro coin, and recited to myself the final words of the plaque that was no more:

     Study the scene with the eyes of faith.
     Do so with a prayer on your lips.
     And let the message of Christmas find its way into your heart.

It is to this that I would invite you this Christmas Eve.

'Study the scene with the eyes of faith," the plaque exhorts us; and if we do, what do we see? In his Epistle to the Philippians, St. Paul responds in the language of theology. We see, he tells us, the Son of God who, in the most incredible act of humility, despoiled Himself of all signs of divinity to become one of us, so as to buy us back from the consequences of our sinfulness.

Though He was the very Son of God, Paul observes, Our Savior did not consider His glory and majesty something to which he had to cling. Rather-and these are Paul's own words-He "emptied Himself." He took on a human likeness, an act that Paul describes as "taking on the form of a slave," ultimately to die for us on a cross. And all of this He did, Paul insists, in obedience to His Heavenly Father and out of a love for us that had, and has, no limit whatever.

This is the Incarnation. This is the Nativity of the Lord. This is Christmas in terms theological. However, the God who loves us so was not content to teach us the wonder and beauty of the Incarnation in the solemn tones of theology. He knows us. He understands that we are most moved and inspired by what we can see, hear and touch. Accordingly, He chose a very particular set of circumstances for the birth of His Son, one that captures the imagination and makes the meaning of the Nativity marvelously clear.

     He had His Son born in a shelter for animals.
     He had His Son cradled in a trough out of which animals were to eat.
     He had His Son placed in the care of two young people who could not, it would seem, afford lodging
     in a refuge for the humblest of travelers.

And if all of this were not enough, He had His Son visited on the night of His birth by only a pathetic band of shepherds, the lowest-ranking members of their society, despised by all except their God.

Yes, dear friends, it is good to look into the Christmas crèche with the eyes of faith, as the little wooden plaque in the Roman church once advised. And when we do, what we see will illuminate Paul's theological lesson with the unique power of a harsh reality deftly and artistically represented. A God in a stable. A God in an animal's trough. A God who was welcomed by the lowliest of the lowly. A God who "emptied Himself" for love of us. A God who "took on the form of a slave" for love of us. And a God who did all of this as a first step on the way to a cross on which He would die for love of us, so that we might live with Him forever.

But the little wooden plaque would not be satisfied with our just looking into the crèche and struggling to understand its message in faith. It adds that we are to do all of this in prayer. Nor is the reason hard to understand. The Incarnation in its basic theological meaning and in its remarkable human setting will take hold of us only if we are disposed to have it do so; and the disposition is uniquely achieved in prayer.


     In prayer we praise and worship our God.
     In prayer we thank Him for His blessings.
     In prayer we seek His forgiveness for our failings.
     In prayer we tell Him of our needs.

And all of this we do in a conversation that connects us with the divine and impels us to seize in faith all that our God has revealed. A theological analysis of Christmas, even one that is masterfully portrayed in the most elaborate of crèches, will never thoroughly captivate us without that contact with the Lord which only comes with prayer.

And so, my friends in Jesus Christ, we peer into the crèche as believers. We see what we see in a context of prayer. And what, we ask, will be the outcome?

The response of this little wooden plaque is right on target. Once we focus on Christmas in both prayer and faith, there rises in our hearts a realization, an intuition, a truth that is simply this: Our God loves us so utterly that He gave His Only Begotten Son to pour Himself out for us not only on Calvary's Hill but also in Bethlehem's stable. He died for us, of course. But He also came to live with us; and He began that human life of His in a shed amid poverty and rejection. And all of this He did so that, in the powerful words of St. Paul, we might come to know "the breadth and length and height and depth of His love."

Gaze at the Christmas drama with the eyes of faith, the little wooden plaque urges us.

Meditate on what you see, the plaque continues.

And you will receive into your hearts, the plaque concludes, the essential message of Christmas-that our God loves us with a love that soars above mere human comprehension, a love that is never to be doubted, never to be forgotten.

To conclude, allow me to illustrate all of this with a story from the Gospel of St. John.

In the third chapter, we meet a man living in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus Christ. He is wealthy, a leader of the Pharisees, and a member of the highest court of the land, the Sanhedrin. His name is Nicodemus, and he has heard of the teachings and miracles of the Lord. His curiosity is piqued. He would like to meet the celebrated wonder-worker, but he would not want any of his friends or associates to know. After all, he was one of the first citizens of Jerusalem. He would not wish to appear unduly interested in an itinerant preacher. Thus, he arranged to come to see the Son of God in secret, "by night."

The meeting opens with an exchange of pleasantries but soon moves into matters of substance. The Lord speaks of the need to be reborn spiritually and even forecasts His death on a cross. However, the climax of the conversation was nothing other than the message of Christmas.

     God so loved the world
     that he gave His Only Begotten Son,
     so that all who believe in Him would not perish, but be saved.

     Or to put it another way:
     God so loved the world
     that he gave us Christmas.

The Evangelist does not tell us what effect all of this had on Nicodemus. We are left to imagine that he ended the encounter with the Lord gracefully and slipped back out into the night.

But the story does not end there. Some months later, the leaders of the Sanhedrin are gathered to address a matter of great concern. Soldiers had been sent to arrest the Lord but had failed in their assignment. "Never has a man spoken as this man," the soldiers plead in their defense; and moreover, they add, there was reason to fear the crowd might react. It is, nonetheless, felt best to arrest the Lord a second time. Unexpectedly, however, one of the assembly rises to speak against the proposal. It is Nicodemus, the timid, cautious Nicodemus, who did not wish anyone even to know that he was interested in meeting with Jesus. "Does our law allow us to judge a man before giving Him a hearing?" he asks in a thinly veiled challenge to his confreres. They try to shout him down, but they have no answer to his appeal to the law of the land. There will be no arrest, it is decided. Nicodemus has prevailed.

Two years later, the Son of God Made Man has been put to death. Who is to bury Him? Anyone who dares to will be linking himself to a criminal who presumed to call Himself a king. Still, two men assume the task. One is Nicodemus who, lest anyone fail to understand his position and commitment in the matter, brings to the preparation for the burial, St. John reports, "a mixture of myrrh and aloes weighing 100 pounds."

Nicodemus, the timid, cautious Nicodemus, has become the marvelously courageous and committed Nicodemus. Of his transformation we know nothing more than what I have recounted. But we know enough. Nicodemus had heard the message of Christmas. He had become convinced that our God loves us beyond all measure. And this was all he needed to hear, just as it is all that you and I need to hear this holy night.

     We look into the crèche.
     We pray.
     We are persuaded that the Lord loves us totally.
     And we are ready, like Nicodemus, to be transformed.

Edward Cardinal Egan

Archbishop of New York

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