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Christmas Midnight Mass – 2013

Abbot Peter, Christmas 2013

Homily by Abbot Peter McCarthy: 12-25-2013

Perhaps you will agree with me that Christmas is a season of Memories. I mean those foundational memories that seem to “haunt” our lives throughout our lives however old. I ask for my brothers patience here as I read again, this year, just two sentences from one of my favorite memory stories: Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales; and I ask you, does it not capture in so few words…something of the heart of Christmas…our longing & our fascination with the mystery of it all?

Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlit and the unending smoke colored snow,

I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill

and hear the music rising from them up the long, steadily falling night.

I turned the gas down, I got into bed.

I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.

Do you remember where you were twenty years ago tonight? Perhaps an unfair question for our guests; but for most of my brothers in community the answer is simple – right here at Midnight Mass. Christmas Eve 1993. I remember that night very well – even where I was sitting during midnight mass. I remember what I was thinking right at this moment after the Gospel was read…

Fr. Bernard, who had been our Abbot for twenty years, just turned 75 years old that night; 75, the mandatory age for retirement for abbots in our Order. This was his last Christmas homily to us & he offered us what he termed “one final thought” on Christmas:

An essential note of every Christmas, he told us, is the darkness of night.

Our present darkness this year could take many forms, some perhaps very painful.

But night, which is ever a notable part of the slow quiet development of spiritual consciousness,

is always in faith a basically positive preparation for the coming of light.

Although there is much hope & insight in these words of Abbot Bernard, it was the memory he shared with us, from his “uptown” Manhattan childhood, that has really stayed with me. I quote him:

One of my own earliest memories and symbols of Christmas as a little boy

was an evening candle-light carol service held in the beautiful old Episcopalian church right across the street from our house.

I didn’t come away from it with anything tangible – not even a little candle –

but the numinous glow of those services has never left me.

What a lovely “Old World” picture “New York in the twenties” but – typical of Abbot Bernard – he didn’t leave us there! He followed this warm nostalgic, period piece with what he abruptly introduced as a Native American wisdom saying. He simply concluded the memory by stating:

What you see when you shut your eyes is what counts.

Okay, What do you see when you shut your eyes? I’ll tell you what I see, nothing! Perhaps more correctly stated; I see darkness when I shut my eyes. If what you see when you shut your eyes is important, than it seems to me that a very important part of us is our darkness! We seem to be made up of darkness inside. I am reminded of reading a description, written by the great Dr. Albert Einstein, of the inner experience of human consciousness: he described it as a tiny raft of light floating on an immense ocean of darkness. Could this be why Christmas appeals to us so powerfully? Again in Abbot Bernard’s words “The essential note of every Christmas is the darkness of night.”

This is certainly reflected in all three scripture readings for this night It is just this darkness that weaves all the readings together.  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.  The Apostle Paul writes to Titus of “waiting for hope” Imagine! A dark place to be! as we await the blessed hope, the appearance of the glory of our great God & Savior Jesus Christ.  And finally St. Luke & the Shepherds: the very first human beings to hear the Christmas Gospel: Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and watching during the night over their flock.

My brothers & friends, Abbot Bernard & all shepherds who watch in the night know that the miracle of Christmas is about discovering new life where we did not expect life to be. The Christmas Gospel tells us something totally unexpected about this vast experience of darkness in our lives. And here you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes & lying in a manger.

Do not be afraid, I bring you news of great joy.

Today in the town of David a savior has been born to you.

Is it difficult to really believe this gospel this Christmas night? To believe that the one major function of my own darkness – whatever the cause – is always to bring me to New Life, New Hope, reaching out to me in the language of human flesh in the manger of Bethlehem.  I am reminded of an Iranian Christmas Reflection sent to me in a card this season:

If, as with King Herod,

We are so afraid of the dark within we fill our lives with things

And fill every moment of our lives with action;

When will we have the time to make the long, slow journey across the dark desert, as did the Magi?

Or sit in the night and watch the stars, as did the Shepherds?

Or patiently cherish the vast mystery within us, as did Mary? 

For each of us

There is a dark desert to travel

A star to discover in the night

And a being within the vast mystery of ourselves

To bring to life.


My sisters & brothers, Let us pray for one another on this Christmas night, that we, like the shepherds, open the eyes of our faith to the Light – shining in our darkness.

Emmanuel – God is with us!

+ Abbot Peter McCarthy


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