Thursday, December 17, 2015

A breaking point

“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
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 1.76-79, NRSV)

* “Other ancient authorities read has broken upon,” my Bible (okay, notes. So which is it? Will the dawn from on high break upon us, or has it already? Perhaps the logical response to this question is that no matter the translation, it’s already happened. In this passage Zechariah is talking about John the Baptist, who will prepare the way for Jesus…who is the light, right?

Well, yeah. I guess that is what I believe, now that I think about it. So why does it still tug at me? I suppose it’s the collision of certainty and uncertainty we witness in Zechariah, a collision that takes place in all of us. For months before he delivers this prophecy, Zechariah is, must be, silent. He did not immediately believe that his elderly wife could become pregnant, and because of his doubt Gabriel literally silenced him. He had a good eight or nine months to come up with what he was going to say. Do you think he, a priest, a leader in the community, a “righteous” and “blameless” man, would screw up his first chance to speak in almost a year? I don’t think so.

This is not to say Zechariah wasn’t sincere in his exclamation. I believe the joy, amazement, and hope he expresses are completely genuine…but he had a lot of time to consider how he would express himself. He was forced to wait, to watch, to listen. How many of us do those things when we don’t have to? I know I don’t, at least not often, and certainly not for months at a time. It almost makes me jealous of him, that he cannot betray his doubt, doesn’t have the option to say something skeptical in the face of an incredible promise. When seen in this light, Gabriel’s silencing of Zechariah is a gift, not a punishment.

Back to that “dawn from on high”: does Zechariah see its presence, or its coming? No one knows for sure. We do know, though, that he has been waiting for a long, long time, longer than his silence, for many things: a child, peace, that dawn. That—that long, quiet, turbulent watch—is Advent. It is much of our life. This waiting can be almost too much to bear, too long to believe it will end. So, too, can the joy that we must hope follows the waiting: too much to bear, too wonderful to believe it can come. Both are gifts, but gifts that we cannot help but doubt. We can but wait, and watch, and hope. Thanks be to God.

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