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Christmas Midnight Mass: 2012


Homily by Abbot Peter McCarthy: 12-25-2012


My dear friends,I wonder how many Christmases we have discovered ourselves out in the fields in the dark with those shepherds? I confess, there are years (like this one with the brutal & senseless shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary school & even right here at Clackamas Town Center) there are years where I seriously wish Christmas could be postponed. And yet, just like those shepherds, we too are visited by angels… if we watch for them… however dark the night. One such recurring Christmas angel for me I’ve actually never met… I’ve only heard about her but her story “visits” me every year in this season.Up on the Mount of Olives, in a tiny convent of elderly Benedictine Sisters, Sister Marie-Paul labors lovingly over her Byzantine inspired icons. “No one has ever seen God”, the Egyptian born nun (daughter of a Palestinian father & an Italian mother) patiently explains. “But we know God spoke most intimately about himself – not in words but in human flesh. That is why I spend my life writing icons – because even if all the bibles in the entire world were destroyed or lost to us – we would still possess the Gospel – the Word of God – in our human flesh.I’ve thought a lot about this tiny elderly nun this Christmas in her little convent overlooking Old Jerusalem… I’ve thought a lot about Sister Marie-Paul because she reminds me once again – no matter how dark the world feels – Christmas is a Life/Hope message from God – written in human flesh – Mary’s flesh – Jesus’ flesh – my flesh – your flesh. This means that this Christmas Gospel is intimately available to our own personal inner-life experience as we listen (hear) the ancient story again this night. This is why St. Bernard would encourage his monks on Christmas Eve: Sanctify yourselves today & be ready, for tonight you shall see in you the majesty of God.I imagine the classic icon form of the triptych. I am sure we have all seen this: there is a central panel, say of The Baptism of the Lord, & on either side of this central panel there are side panels, imagine Saint John the Baptist on one & the two earliest disciples on the other. It is in the relationship of one panel to another that the real story is told. It all depends which side panel you choose to approach the central panel how you understand the mystery.

Tonight’s Christmas gospel is a triptych – the central panel is, of course, Mary, Joseph, & the child in the manger. Now on one side of this central panel is the panel of the Inn:

“She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger,because there was no room for them in the inn.”

Let me describe this panel: a first century Middle Eastern Inn was a honeycomb series of stalls off a central courtyard. You provide the food; the inn keeper provides the fire & fodder. This panel is occupied – pre-occupied – no vacancy – everyone in his/her own private space – a more or less secure & ordered environment – structure – world. I am reminded here of a wise old lady’s Christmas reflection. This is the irrational season when love blooms bright & wild, had Mary been filled with reason, there’d be no room for the child.

On the opposite side of our central panel of the Nativity is the Panel of the Shepherds.

“Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock.”

In 1st century Palestine shepherds were a despised class because they were landless – migrants –always moving – erecting shacks out in the fields where they would watch during the night. Now the Shepherds’ Panel is physically & atmospherically directly opposite the panel of the Inn. It has practically no boundaries, it is completely vulnerable to the dark night & there are no “private” spaces. These shepherds are, by sheer necessity, open to the immense reality surrounding them in the night.

My Sisters & Brothers, one thing is clear from our own life-experience, it costs us a great deal to stand in the Shepherds’ Panel. We almost always enter the Shepherds’ Panel through personal pain or loss… it can be the death of someone we love, it can be the loss of a life-dream, it can be a sharp rupture in an intimate relationship, or a traumatic diagnosis – loss of health. When I find myself within the Shepherds’ Panel I discover how very vulnerable I am. How enormous & uncontrollable is life – reality; and how dark & vast the night I stand in.

And yet, the Christmas Gospel tells us & the shepherds something totally unexpected about this vast experience of vulnerability in life.

“And here will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”

I wonder, will we ever really believe this Gospel? The Shepherds’ Panel is the doorway into the center of the Christmas Mystery.

“Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you.”

It comes hard to belief, this Christmas Gospel – as if to say the one major function of darkness – whatever the cause – in my own personal life – is always to bring me to The Child in the manger – always to bring me to new life/new hope reaching out to me in the language of human flesh.

If you find this message hard to believe, just ask a shepherd – I’ve known several in my own life. I end with the words of one such Christmas shepherd – the martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero who stood in the vast darkness of El Salvador 35 years ago – unprotected by walls & waiting for the Child of this night.

“No one can celebrate a genuine Christmas without being truly poor. The self-sufficient, the proud, those, who because they have everything, look down on others, those who have no need even of God – for them will be no Christmas. Only the poor, the hungry, those who need someone to come on their behalf, will have that someone. That someone is God. That someone is God, Emmanuel, God-with-us. Without poverty of Spirit there can be no abundance of God.”

My Brothers & Sisters, wherever you are inside tonight I invite you to stand in the Panel of the Shepherds this Christmas morning & await the abundance of God in your own personal life. Emmanuel – God-with-us – in the manger of your heart. We hear again the ancient chant of the prophet Isaiah:

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; Upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom, A light has shone.”

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