Wood piles dot the landscape of my parents’ mountain home. Neatly stacked between younger saplings, they are an obvious manifestation of my dad’s love of nature and family. The house is filled with warmth, no log is wasted, everything is used, and the land flourishes under his care. My dad is a well-seasoned lumberjack. Not by trade, for he was a high school English teacher during my younger years. I have vivid memories of exploring our hundred-acre homestead in upstate New York while my dad felled trees and split logs in preparation for the frigid winter ahead. A huge wood stove in the living room of our turn-of-the-century farmhouse roared all winter long, continuously fed by the fruits of my dad’s labor of love.
As a teenager, my job was to stack wood pieces next to the stove while my dad handed them to me through a small opening he had fashioned in the wall of our garage. It was essential that the pieces fit well together so that the stack would not become lopsided and topple over. It also needed to be precise in order to conserve space and ensure an ample amount of clean, dry wood at the ready. This chore, surprisingly, became a source of consolation for me during those tumultuous teen years. Many words of wisdom and humor passed through that opening along with the logs, and I discovered a joy in connection with my dad as well as the promise of warmth and comfort of all kinds.
Wood brings warmth, and so (as I sit basking in front of a fire that my husband built earlier today) it symbolizes love. Joseph himself constantly worked with wood as a carpenter, teaching his chosen trade to the incarnate Son of God. It became the means to support his precious, holy family, and he never faltered in that vocation.
Wood can also be a symbol of pain and sacrifice. Chainsaws are seldom forgiving and can sometimes even be errant in their cuts, as evidenced by the numerous scars on my dad’s body. And the nails the Christ child wielded with accuracy in his youth became the symbol of his ultimate sacrifice on a cross of wood. The nails embedded in his skin, fixing his flesh to the wood of his earthly father’s livelihood, also fulfilled his divine Father’s will.
This wood, those nails, the very means of our ransom from death, sheltered Christ as an infant in the manger, yet also bore him on the cross to the underworld to free the faithful, to free us all.
The wood of the manger and the wood of the cross are both legacies of Christ—contradictions of warmth and pain, of infinite love and ferocious hate. For, indeed, the pounding of nails can either mend or maim.
The wood piles surrounding my parents’ home are too numerous to be used up by them, or even by us, after my parents’ time has passed. The piles will be added to and handed on for generations to come, a legacy of love and care, of pain and sacrifice. It is in the dying of nature that we are kept warm, comforted, and consoled. And it is in the knowledge of Christ’s supreme sacrifice that we know we are loved.
“On Calvary, he was laid upon a wooden cross; in Bethlehem, he was laid in a wooden manger. At Bethlehem, love and death met in the body of Christ, and love prevailed.”
—Caryll Houselander, Wood of the Cradle, Wood of the Cross