Darkness cloaks these days. We go to work before the sun is up, and we return home with our car lights on as the shortened days are at hand. Some of us want to hibernate; others find candles and fires festive and comforting. We do our best to illumine this time of year with both artificial and spiritual means. Thankfully, God provides the latter.
One of the texts for the Second Sunday of Advent is the Benedictus, as recorded in Luke’s Gospel. You may recall that Zechariah had encountered an angel while performing his priestly duties at the temple; in this terrifying experience, Gabriel (who is quite busy in these early chapters of Luke) announces that the priest’s wife, Elizabeth, would bear him a son – finally. Up in years, they had both given up hope of this expectation. Advent begins with dim prospect.
Understandably, Zechariah questions the messenger’s word, and the miffed angel tells him he will remain mute “until the days these things occur” (1:20). Outside the people are wondering about the delay in the sanctuary, and they grew more puzzled when he came out and could not speak to them, only make motions. At least they had the spiritual sensitivity to conclude that he has seen a vision. Can you imagine the speculation about what really went on in that encounter? Perhaps something holy really was at work in this timeworn ritual. They wanted to quiz him, but why bother? Then, he went home to a pregnant, equally astonished, wife. Advent is a surprising time.
We have no evidence of him speaking again until after the circumcision and naming of the child. I have always found it rather humorous that instead of listening to his mother who clearly said his name would be John, the neighbors and relatives turn to the wordless Zechariah. They preferred a mute man to the perfectly articulate woman, a pattern that continues. Still unable to speak, Zechariah can only write, “His name is John.” Then, “his mouth was opened, and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God” (v. 64). Advent summons speechlessness and wonder.
Filled with the Holy Spirit, Zechariah spoke this lyrical prophecy about the role his son would play in the coming of the mighty Savior. Luke crafts a joyous song that summarizes the whole of God’s covenantal promise and John’s preparatory work. The canticle concludes with these words of fulfillment:
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace (Luke 1:78-79).
Benedict of Nursia, founder of the Benedictines, most likely instituted the practice of including the Benedictus in the morning prayer of his monastic community. Each morning at Lauds the monks celebrate the wonder that the “dawn from on high” has come, acknowledging both the new day and the new epoch of redemption for those who sit in darkness. And they don’t wait for Advent to sing this. Advent is always on the way as new things struggle to be born.
“Advent offers a different pace, a deepened longing and a brightening awareness that as Christians we occupy two realms.”
Advent offers a different pace, a deepened longing and a brightening awareness that as Christians we occupy two realms. While we cannot escape the market’s categorical imperative to consume, we also know that our true home cannot be commodified. It is too pure, too simple and too bright – the true light coming into the world.
Soon we will celebrate the feast day of St. Lucia, a third-century martyr, who wore candles on her head that her hands might be free to serve. Her crown of candles lit the way as she carried as much food as possible to those in the Roman catacombs. Especially revered in Sweden, whose long winter days are darker than ours, she is a reminder that God sends forth light where darkness closes in. Advent grows brighter as we move toward the glory that shines forth from the Christ.
In the illuminated manuscript, The St. John’s Bible, a golden shaft of light links the heavens with the cradle in its portrayal of Luke’s nativity. It depicts the dawn from on high, and all reflect its luminous power.
Without this inbreaking from God, we stumble without direction along destructive pathways. Thankfully, God’s tender mercy finds us in our darkness and lights the way. In these reflective days of Advent, may we walk toward what we hope for – the way of peace. Advent leads us home by means of the luminaria provided by God.