Something to sing about 2: The Benedictus of Zechariah
I can’t really remember what my first words were to my children when they were born. I was probably too worn out to say anything profound. I certainly didn’t manage to break into poetry, like Zechariah in tonight’s Gospel reading. Of course, he’d had a bit longer to think about it; it was a week since his son had been born. But despite that, these were his first words on the subject. He had been literally struck dumb when the angel told him his wife was going to have a baby, and it’s no wonder. They had been hoping for children for many years, with no success. It seemed as if it was too late now.
In the ancient world, having children was vital. It ensured the survival of your name. It meant there would be someone to look after you in your old age too, which was very important when there was no social security. But more than that, it showed that God had blessed you. Children were a gift from God – there was no real understanding of why women might, or might not, conceive, and it was assumed that it was simply God’s will – or not. So Zechariah and Elizabeth had endured many years of sorrow and longing, perhaps believing that they had somehow offended God. It had cast a dark shadow over their lives. When the angel appeared to Zechariah and told him that Elizabeth was going to bear a son, it was more than he dared believe. And we are told that as a result he was unable to speak until the child was born.
But the child arrived as promised, and now, at eight days old everyone has gathered for his circumcision. What is he going to be called? Surely it should be a family name, after such a long wait for an heir to continue Zechariah’s line. But no. The angel had said he should be named John - which means “God is gracious” and Zechariah knew that that was exactly right. God had been gracious to him and Elizabeth. He had given them the gift they longed for. But his song tells us that he knew this child wasn’t just a gift to them, but also a gift to the world. This was the one who would prepare the way for Christ, who would call people to a new awareness of themselves and their need for repentance, who would remind them of God’s loving forgiveness.
It’s all there in the song Zechariah sings as his lips are opened again. John will “go before the Lord to prepare his ways” He will “give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.” They will know they are safe in God’s love – that’s really what salvation means – because they will know that God has forgiven them. John’s message is not going to be “there, there, it’s all right”, or “I’m ok, you’re ok” and that’s just as well. Because often it isn’t all right, and we aren’t ok. His message will be far better news than that sort of papering over the cracks. He will tell people that God loves them and sticks with them no matter how far from all right they are, and can turn them around and heal them.
“By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us,” says Zechariah. If you’ve ever sat through a long dark night, you might know the relief of seeing the first, pale light of dawn. That would have been even more true at a time before electric lights. At least when the dawn comes you can see what’s what. You might even be able to do something about it. You can see the help around you, too, and discover perhaps that you weren’t as alone as you thought you were.
For Elizabeth and Zechariah the birth of John, their son, was a light that chased away the long darkness of childlessness they’d endured. For the rest of us, his ministry was the first encouraging sign that God was on the move, coming in Christ to bring us the love and life we long for. “Now is the time to awake out of sleep” says St Paul. “The night is far gone; the day is near.” As we look at our lives this Advent, and at the world around us, it can sometimes seem as if the darkness could last forever, but God’s promise is that his light is stronger, and that the dawn will always come.