I've always loved Christmas carols. I'm the guy who, as soon as it's culturally acceptable, usually right after Thanksgiving, turns the station to whatever radio station is playing Christmas music. By Christmas day I'm usually ready to be done, but by November, I'm already anticipating "Jingle Bells," "Frosty the Snowman," and "Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire." (And since my 1-year-old son, Henry, has been born, there's added joy in the season because I love finding ways, even if they don't make much sense, to insert his name into Christmas songs [i.e. "Henry the Red-Nosed Reindeer," etc.])
Perhaps that's why the Lukan infancy narrative has always been among my favorite parts of the bible. In Luke Chapter 1, we find what I like to think of as the first Christmas carols (perhaps it'd more appropriate to say "Advent hymns"). I've written before about Mary's song, which perhaps doesn't get the attention it deserves, but Zechariah's song gets even less attention. Perhaps it's because Mary's a much higher profile character in the Christmas story than Zechariah, although, in their time, Zechariah would have been a bigger deal than Mary. After all, he was a priest--and not only that, he was a priest whose wife, Elizabeth, also came from priestly stock--and Mary was just a poor girl from Nazareth. And perhaps it's because Zechariah was John the Baptist's father and, let's be honest, we don't really talk about John until closer to Lent, right?
But despite the lack of attention it receives, Zechariah's song is full of hope and exemplifies the kind of anticipation and proclamation that should be associated with the Advent season. Upon the birth of his son, Zechariah bursts into song, singing,
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty savior for us
in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.
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 1:68-79
Now, before we break it down and look at specific part of the song, it's important to recognize its context. First, widen the lens to Zechariah's own story. Zechariah was a pretty important guy. He was a priest, married to a daughter of priests. Months before this, Zechariah was serving in the temple, something he would have done about twice a year, for a week at a time. On this rare occasion, Zechariah was chosen for an even rarer privilege. He was chosen, by lot, to offer incense in the temple, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity! But just in case you were beginning to think that John's birth was just another product of Zechariah's high standing and good fortune... just in case you thought John's birth was just the prolongation of Zechariah's present success, the story is interrupted!
See, even though Zechariah was, in all other ways, a successful and fortunate man, his wife was barren and it's implied that they were too old to conceive a child. This barrenness haunts the otherwise good fortunes that surround Zechariah's life. With all the wonderful possibilities, there is this looming impossibility.
Now to understand the impossibility of this promise we have to widen the lens just a little further, beyond Zechariah and his situation to the people of Israel and their situation. See, Israel is the chosen people of God, but they're living under Roman rule. And, for the most part, they are living under Roman oppression. The large majority of the people of Israel, living in Palestine, are living in relative poverty, heavily taxed by the Roman authorities, including their puppet king, Herod, and heavily obligated by a religious system that demands sacrifices. Something like 5% of the population owns about 90% of the wealth, and hunger and sickness are very real and immanent threats. But perhaps the worst problem is not that Israel is ruled by Romans but that the people of God are ruled by Pagans. Israel was void of any legitimate prophets and essentially, God was silent. In a world where the power of the gods was proved by the prosperity of their people, this was a deeply existential dilemma and legitimately raised the question, is our God for real? Is our God really in control, really the one true God? Can our God possibly deliver us? Is the promise true?
Just in case you were tempted to think that the coming of the messiah and the kingdom of God were just extensions of Israel's history, the story is interrupted! It is interrupted, for Zechariah, with the announcement that his son is coming, "...to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (1:17). And just in case you thought that this interruption was a product of Zechariah's own faith and religious powers, in his unbelief he is silenced. Zechariah is made unable to speak and unable to hear until his son is born.
This is where Zechariah's song enters the story; not in the possibility of Zechariah's faithful action and not in the power of Israel's religious commitment, but in the silence of God, the silence of Zechariah, and the impossibility of human action. It is not in Zechariah's strength, but in his weakness that this song is birthed. It is not in what is becoming in the world, but what is coming into the world!
The season of Advent is a season of hope, but it is not, at its core, hope in the possibilities of the present. It is hope for God to act in the impossibility of the present. Jurgen Moltmann makes it clear that Advent is not simply about the future. He compares the concept of Advent with a simple concept of the future, he speaks of futurum and adventus. “Futurum means what will be; adventus means what is coming… future in the sense of futurum develops out of the past and present, inasmuch as these hold within themselves the potentiality of becoming..." (The Coming of God, 25). He continues, “Just as the raised Christ does not develop out of the crucified and dead Christ, the novum ultimum—the ultimate new thing—does not issue from the history of the old" (28). Advent, as opposed to a simply hope in the possibilities of the future, anticipates and expects God to act, even where there is no human possibility that anything new can happen. Advent is about the expectation of the coming of God, to meet us in our weakness, and interrupt our story.
Now turning to the song itself, there are few key phrases that help us share Zechariah's Advent excitement.
He sings, "God has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them." Notice the present tense here. For Zechariah, the promise is as good as fulfilled! The future of God has entered the present and Zechariah can sing, as though it has already happened, "God's people have been redeemed!" This points to the "now and not yet" character of the Kingdom of God. In a very important and real sense, the salvation of God is not just something for which we wait. It is here and now. The heart of Jesus' message was "the Kingdom of God is among you!" (Luke 17:21). It's not just something we hope for or a place we get to go when we die. It is a present reality--or a future reality that has interrupted and transformed the present. It's true, we have been redeemed, here and now! Even while the Romans still rule, even when the present is so surrounded by impossibility, the kingdom is here!
He goes on to sing: "Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors." It may not be from Israel's own action that the Messiah comes, but it is certainly to Israel that the Messiah comes. It may not be hope from earth--from the potential of the present--but it is certainly hope for the earth! Zechariah sees this coming as a culmination of God's promises throughout history, as the validation and vindication of Israel's hope. It is an interruption, but it is an interruption of Israel's story.
"...To grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days." This is both political and religious. It's not just that Israel is being restored to power... in fact, this is precisely where so many people missed the point of Jesus' message. The restoration is coming in a form that no one is expecting. But the real point of this restoration is not earthly power but the relationship of people with God.
"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.” It is by God's tender mercy that this dawn is coming. And it's not just becoming... it's breaking upon us.
The Advent season is filled with words like "Joy" and "Hope." And these words are essential responses to the reality that we anticipate. But in this Advent season, let us remember that it is in weakness that God meets us. It is not that God expects us to ascend from our pain into joy, or to simply muster some hope from within ourselves. Instead, the joy and the hope of the coming of God breaks upon us and interrupts our pain and our weakness with the announcement that we will be saved.