January 6, 2005

A Christmas Homily

Following is the text of the homily that Cardinal Egan delivered at the Christmas Midnight Mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

Just about a month ago, I heard a rather surprising announcement on the morning radio news. The Metropolitan Museum of Art here in New York City had just spent something shy of $50 million for a painting of the Virgin Mary with the Child Jesus in her arms. The price was the most that the Metropolitan had ever paid for a painting, the newscaster reported. And the purchase, he added, had virtually exhausted the museum’s funds for future acquisitions.

Hearing all of this, I concluded that the newly acquired masterpiece must be very grand indeed. I imagined that it would be immense, the size, perhaps, of one of those great Venetian paintings of the 16th century, by a Veronese or a Tintoretto. I imagined that it would be populated with saints on either side of the Virgin and Child and with angels soaring above. I imagined that it would be enhanced by a splendid background of trees and flowers, such as Raphael or Botticelli might have provided. And I was all but certain that it would be set into a huge, handsomely carved frame of great artistic value in itself. After all, $50 million is $50 million.

A few days later, one of the local newspapers published a color photograph of the painting in actual size. It is 8 inches by 11 inches, about the size of a sheet of typing paper. The Virgin is clad in a simple, undecorated cloak of dark blue, and her Child wears an even simpler tunic and scarf. There are no saints or angels to be seen; the background is a flat orange wall; and the frame – the frame – is a badly chipped square of wood, the bottom of which is burned in several places, probably by votive candles that were lit beneath it for years, perhaps for centuries.

I am certainly in no position to judge the artistic merit of the painting. From the photograph in the newspaper, it seems quite lovely, reminiscent of what Giotto might have painted on the walls of the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi – a blend of Byzantine art with a hint of the beginnings of the Italian Renaissance.

Whatever of its esthetic value, I am altogether delighted that we have the painting here in New York. For in my estimate, the 14th-century master who painted it, a certain Duccio di Buoninsegna, has presented the Virgin Mother and her Child exactly as they should be presented and, in so doing, has given us a powerful lesson as to what Christmas is all about.

Christmas, I would insist, has, first and foremost, to do with humility, or better: the virtue of humility.

St. Paul, in his theological account of the Incarnation, makes this abundantly clear. The Redeemer, he tells us, though he was God, did not think his divinity to be something to which he had to cling. Accordingly, to buy us back from our sinfulness, he "emptied himself" of all manifestations of the divine so that he might stoop to become one of us, as a freeman might stoop to become a slave (Epistle to the Philippians 2:5-8).

With a humility that astounds, indeed, bewilders, the Son of God lived among us as a wandering preacher and died for us as a criminal on a cross. And this holy night we recall with wonder and amazement that he also went so far as to come among us as a Child of poverty, born to a peasant mother.

The passage from St. Luke’s Gospel that the deacon read for us a few moments ago is, of course, a charming story. But it is more than that. It is also a veritable hymn to humility.

The Mother of the Second Person of the Most Blessed Trinity and her spouse, a carpenter, were ordered by a vain and self-indulgent emperor to journey, very likely on foot, to the spouse’s hometown, to be counted. The hometown, Bethlehem by name, was a backwater at best; and its inns and hostelries were filled with others forced to obey the emperor’s command but very likely in a more comfortable economic situation than the Virgin and her spouse. Thus, the couple took refuge in a cave; and there in the humblest of settings, the Messiah was born and "laid in a manger," that is, placed in a trough out of which brute animals were to eat. There too the King of Kings received the only visitors who came to pay their respects, shepherds who occupied the lowest rank in the society of the time, shepherds whom "proper folk" despised and shunned.

Truly, St. Paul was right on target. To ransom us from our sin, the Savior humbled himself throughout his life and in a very special and beautiful way at the time of his birth. He did it for our salvation, of course. But this we may never allow ourselves to forget: He did it as well for our imitation.

What is Christmas all about? It is about many things; and the first of them is humility, the humility with which the Son of God redeemed us and the humility he came to teach us.

Do we wish to walk in the footsteps of the "meek and humble" Prince of Peace who was cradled in the arms of the Virgin Mother 2,000 years ago. If so, our program is clear. This is what is expected of us. Toward none, no matter what their condition in life, may we ever dare to be proud or demeaning. Toward none, no matter to what depths they may have fallen in the eyes of the world, may we ever dare to count ourselves superior. Toward none, no matter how unworthy they may appear to us, may we ever dare to act as though they were other than children of God, fashioned in his likeness, beings for whom the very Son of God "emptied himself" and poured out his blood.

Christmas has a very special lesson to teach, and it begins with humility.

It does not, however, end there. It moves on to love. Indeed, when true humility is in place, love follows "as night the day." For with humility we see ourselves as we are; and no less importantly, we also see others as they are, creatures whose God-given dignity knows no limit, creatures whose value can never be reckoned in merely human terms, creatures who have a legitimate claim, in fact, a right to our love, because of what their Maker has made them to be.

There were no limits to the self-sacrificing love of the Savior who became one of us in Bethlehem’s City. From his concern, affection and divine compassion, none were excluded – not the brutal king who sought to kill him, not the Pharisees who schemed to trap him, not the disciples who "walked no more with him," not the soldiers who mocked and flogged him, not even the craven Roman procurator who condemned him.

None escaped his love. None at all. Indeed, as he hung dying on the cross, he begged his Father in heaven to forgive his persecutors. Humanly speaking, they, of course, deserved no forgiveness. Nonetheless, they remained ever and securely in his love. As St. John reports, "He loved them to the end" (John 13:1).

As we gather in this splendid house of prayer, meditating the birth of the humble and loving Savior, can we think of any individuals or groups to whom we do not wish well, to whom we refuse understanding and respect, to whom we would not extend a helping hand in time of need?

If such there be, this is the time and this is the place to set things aright. This is the time and this is the place to abandon definitively any contempt, any disdain, any desire to hurt, humiliate or harm anyone whatsoever. This is the time and this is the place to rivet our attention on the Christmas story, delve into its meaning, and make its message our own.

At this holy Mass, we gaze into the Christmas crèche; and this is what we see – humility beyond all imagining and love beyond all boundaries. With the grace of God, we focus in on it, and with trust in God we courageously embrace it. For this is what Christmas is meant to achieve in us. This is its lesson. This is its message.

Permit me to end this way. Two weeks ago, both of the most popular national newsmagazines dedicated their covers and their cover stories to the birth of Jesus. The articles were remarkably similar. In both, the authors took each element of the Christmas story and analyzed it according to what was alleged to be a scientific method of historical research.

Did Caesar Augustus really order a census? Was Bethlehem really the place where Christ was born? Would there really have been shepherds in the fields at that time? And so forth. No facet of the account was left uninvestigated; and for the most part, the investigations ended in a draw between the "yeas and nays."

One of the articles, however, concluded with what I would consider an extraordinarily valuable insight. When all of the analysis is finished, when everything has been called into question and nothing remains sufficiently proved for some or sufficiently disproved for others, it is left to each of us to contemplate the birth of Jesus with honesty and openness, so as to allow its meaning to come through.

This, however, the article insists, requires a congregation if it is to be done properly and effectively. We need to be gathered together with others who, like ourselves, are struggling with the lesson of Bethlehem, if we are truly to make it our own and live it. Dealing with the wonder of Christmas is the enterprise of a community, indeed, the enterprise of a community of faith, the article proclaims.

And this is precisely why we are here this evening. We have heard the story. Its message is clear. We need, however, the strength to seize it, to accept it, and to make it live within us. Together, as a community of faith, in this cathedral and in every home, hospital, nursing home or hotel room in which viewers and listeners are sharing in our Christmas Mass, we lower our heads, strike our breasts, and plead with one voice and one heart: "O Jesus Christ, in the arms of your Mother, look at us, as we look at you, and imbue us with the lesson of Christmas, a lesson of humility and a lesson of love."

A noble prayer. Some may even think it an audacious prayer. Still, it is the Christmas prayer; and as a humble loving community of faith, we joyfully pray it together.

Edward Cardinal Egan

Archbishop of New York