In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall shine on those who dwell in darkness, and guide our feet into the way of peace.
When I was in seminary I was invited to a lunch hosted by an international network called “Affirming Catholicism,” which, if anyone’s interested, defines itself this way: a group of liberal/progressive Anglicans in the Catholic tradition of the church, who are passionate about the power of a lavish sacramental life and the continuing unfolding of Christ’s incarnation in the midst of the world. Not much to argue with there! Next time someone asks you about the distinction between 21st-century Anglicanism and all the other churches out there, you can tell them: we are passionate about a lavish sacramental life and the unfolding of Christ’s incarnation in the world.
The guest speaker was Bishop David Stancliffe from Salisbury, England, who, in addition to being a bishop, is a prolific musician and writer of books on liturgy and prayer. He gave a wonderful talk about the importance of daily community prayer, and then offered us a long question-and-answer time. Someone asked him: If you could pick one piece of the Anglican prayer tradition to have with you on a desert island, that you could not live without, what would it be?
How would you answer that question? It’s an interesting one to think about.
Bishop Stancliffe had obviously thought about it before, because he answered without hesitation: the Song of Zechariah. Like the song of Mary, the song of Zechariah was written by Luke in the tradition of the great Old Testament songs of praise: the Song of Hannah, the Song of Miriam, and more. It’s been a foundation of Christian daily prayer for two millennia.
Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; *
he has come to his people and set them free.
He has raised up for us a mighty savior, *
born of the house of his servant David.
Through his holy prophets he promised of old,
that he would save us from our enemies, *
from the hands of all who hate us.
He promised to show mercy to our fathers *
and to remember his holy covenant.
This was the oath he swore to our father Abraham, *
to set us free from the hands of our enemies,
Free to worship him without fear, *
holy and righteous in his sight
all the days of our life.
You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, *
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,
To give his people knowledge of salvation *
by the forgiveness of their sins.
In the tender compassion of our God *
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, *
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.
Remember the story of Zechariah? It’s a wonderful Advent story. (You can find it in the first chapter of Luke.) Zechariah and his wife come from a long tradition of faithful couples unable to bear a child. The Angel Gabriel visits Zechariah while he is worshipping in the temple, and promises that his barren wife, Elizabeth, will bear a son, a son with a special mission to prepare the wayward people of Israel for a new world. Zechariah, who is faithful but also very practical and down-to-earth, says “why should I believe you? My wife and I are way too old for this.” As a punishment for doubting God’s messenger, the Angel says that Zechariah will not be able to speak until after the child is born. The great and miraculous day comes, and the neighbors gather to circumcise the child on the eighth day. Still no word from Zechariah. However, when it comes time to name the child, God lifts the gag order and Zechariah announces that the child is to be named John, which means “God is gracious.” His next words are the words we hear today, a song of praise and prophecy that has been sung and prayed through the centuries.
Called the Benedictus, the song of Zechariah is a song of God’s presence in history, with the theme of promise dancing from the beginning of time into eternity. Zechariah and Elizabeth lived in a dark time, and were given a child as a promise of God’s light. But the song is not about what God has done for them in giving them a son. The song is all about what God is doing for the world throughout history, and will do in the message which John is to bear. The song is the praise of the message, not the messenger. I commend the song of Zechariah to each of you as an Advent discipline; read it every day over breakfast, or at night before you go to sleep.
It is fitting that Zechariah is John’s father, since John, too, was all about connecting the past and the future.
John’s starting point was a particular moment in time—very particular, when Tiberius had been emperor for fifteen years and Pontius Pilate was governor—but his spiritual heritage is from another time and place, just as we live in a particular moment in time, but our spiritual heritage is also from another time. John speaks from the time of Isaiah promising a voice crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord. John speaks from the time of the Prophet Malachi, of a messenger who will purify the people of God so that their gifts to the Lord and to the world are gifts of righteousness. (All of this with Handel’s Messiah playing in the background to help lift us out of time and space.)
If the whole sweep of Old Testament history teaches us nothing else, it teaches us that God’s invitation, to return, to straighten up, to reclaim God’s love and God’s rule, never goes out of style. When we stand with John the Baptist, we stand on a threshold, on a hinge of salvation history. On one side of the threshold is the whole history of the people of God, ever turning away and ever being called back. (We can imagine Zechariah standing there with us.) On the other side of the threshold is the world transformed by God’s entrance into history, appearing as a human baby, both in a very particular time and place, and in the unfolding mystery of Incarnation.
John’s invitation to prepare the way not only has echoes back through the centuries before him, but also forward, into our time. The wide highway that happens when crooked paths are made straight and rough places are made smooth is a highway that not only connects us to one another so that we can build the kingdom of God, it also connects us to the great story that stretches from the beginning of time and forever, the story told by the prophets, by Isaiah, Malachi, Zechariah, John, Mary, and Jesus.
I saw the blues singer Keb Mo a few weeks ago at the Aladdin theatre; he has a great song called “Life Is Beautiful.” Part of refrain goes: “And the song that lasts forever, keeps on gettin betta/ All the time.” The song of Zechariah, the song of Mary that we sing during Advent, the great song playing through our lives that is the story of God’s longing for our return and reconciliation, the promise of God’s blessing in the world, all of these songs last forever and keep getting better, like God’s promises to us. As we prepare for the continuing unfolding of Christ’s Incarnation in the world, let us listen for the song.