Text: Luke 1:68-end: Benedictus
Once again, we find ourselves at the beginning of a new Church Year, at the beginning of another Advent Season. I truly love this time of year. It always feels to me like something changes in the air, on our TVs and radios, in people’s demeanor, in the very environment itself just after Thanksgiving. Some of this is, of course, the often-cheesy Hallmark Movie kinds of things in the media, or the annoying emails about this or that sale that inundate our inboxes. I could do without that. But we also have lights, carols, cool weather, and excited children all pointing us in expectation towards Christmas. Does our culture “jump the gun” on Christmas celebrations? Certainly. But for all my tendencies towards being a liturgical purist, I don’t begrudge the hopeful expectation. Indeed, I welcome it.
A dear friend and co-host on one of my podcasts, the Venerable Andrew Brashier, recently wrote a profound reflection in The North American Anglican on Advent expectation in our secular culture. Noticing that Christmas lights seem to be coming up earlier and earlier each year, to the point that some folks are putting them up just after Halloween, he wonders if the trend reflects an unacknowledged spiritual longing. He writes,
Perhaps even the most secular materialist cannot help but yearn for the spiritual realm to permeate and penetrate the darkness of old man winter… The brightness of neighborhoods in my community despite the emptiness of the pews tells me that even the unchurched, formerly churched, and self-righteous materialist rejects their own culture of “always winter and never Christmas.”
“Then Paul stood in the midst of the lights and decorations of the city and said, “People of Suburbia, I perceive that in all things you are also religious. For as I passed by and beheld your lights and decorations, I found a blow-up with this inscription: ‘Happy Holidays.’ What you therefore celebrate in ignorance, Him I declare unto you.”
The Archdeacon is, of course, paraphrasing St. Paul’s speech on Mars Hill from the book of Acts to make a point. God has created within us a longing for something more, a longing that only he can fill. As St. Augustine famously wrote in his Confessions, “Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.” Advent is a season of holy restlessness, even for those who do not yet know it.
We see this kind of holy restlessness in Scripture itself as we move from the Old Testament to the New. As WH Griffith-Thomas, an Anglican priest and founder of Dallas Theological Seminary, wrote about 100 years ago, the Old Testament ends up being “A Book of Unfulfilled Prophecies … A Book of Unexplained Ceremonies … A Book of Unsatisfied Longings.” It is only with the coming of the Messiah that the prophecies are fulfilled, the ceremonies are explained, and the longings are satisfied. Advent is a time when we enter into that tension. Even as we look in anticipation towards our Lord’s second coming, we remember the expectation and anticipation of a people in exile. In the words of former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, from one of his homilies, “in Advent … we all become – as it has been said – Jews once more.”
This isn’t, of course, to engage in some sort of “Replacement Theology,” but it is to remember from whence we came as God’s people. This is why we continue to sing Israel’s ancient hymnal in the Psalms. This is why our daily readings always include a lesson from the Old Testament as well as a lesson from the New. The Hebrew Scriptures are our Scriptures as well. Even for the Gentile Christian who has been (as St. Paul says) grafted into Israel’s vine, there is a connection to the physical children of Abraham, particularly at this time of year. Indeed, each of our Gospel Canticles from Morning and Evening Prayer are expressions of Israel’s hope in the Messiah’s coming. That is why all three of them, the Magnificat (Mary’s Song), the Nunc Dimittis (Simeon’s Song), and the Benedictus (Zechariah’s Song) come from the early chapters of Luke’s gospel. They’re all related to Christmas and Advent. I’d like to particularly look at the last of these, the Benedictus, for the rest of today’s homily. This canticle from Morning Prayer is particularly appropriate for Advent. In fact, to drive that point home, our Prayer Book’s Rubrics forbid us to use the optional abbreviation of this Canticle on Sundays in Advent!
You will recall that Zechariah, a priest in the Temple, had been ministering when the Angel Gabriel appeared to him to tell him that he’d be the father of the Messiah’s forerunner. Because of his and his wife’s advanced ages, Zechariah didn’t believe the angel, and was therefore struck mute until after his son’s birth. 9 months later, when the baby is 8 days old, and his parents bring him to the Temple to be dedicated and circumcised, as per the Law of Moses, Zechariah (through a writing tablet) affirms the child’s name would be John, as the Angel foretold. With that affirmation, Zechariah’s tongue is loosed, and he also breaks forth into song. Luke 1:68, found in Morning Prayer on page 14:
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he hath visited and redeemed his people
And hath raised up a mighty salvation for us, in the house of his servant David;
As he spake by the mouth of his holy Prophets, which have been since the world began;
That we would be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all that hate us.
To perform the mercy promised to our forefathers, and to remember his holy covenant;
To perform the oath which he sware to our forefather Abraham, that he would give us;
That we being delivered out of the hand of our enemies might serve him without fear;
In holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life.
And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways;
To give knowledge of salvation unto his people for the remission of their sins,
Through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the day-spring from on high hath visited us;
To give light to them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death, and to guide our feat into the way of peace.
As Alfred Edersheim, a 19th century orthodox Jew and rabbinical student who eventually became an Anglican priest, writes, “[Zechariah’s] last words had been those of unbelief, his first were those of praise; his last words had been a question of doubt, his first were a hymn of assurance.” Indeed, Zechariah rightly knows that the long period of Israel’s waiting was drawing to a close. God would return to his Temple, return to his people. With the birth of the Messiah’s forerunner, the Messiah himself was drawing nigh. In short, the long spiritual exile was finally coming to an end.
Indeed, Zechariah’s hymn is profoundly Jewish, filled with allusions to Old Testament prophecy, and even mirrors the typical forms of Hebrew liturgy. Edersheim observes:
[I]t is remarkable – and yet almost natural – that this hymn of the Priest closely follows, and, if the expression be allowable, spiritualizes a great part of the most ancient Jewish prayer: the so-called Eighteen Benedictions; rather perhaps, that it transforms the expectancy of that prayer into praise of its realization.
Edersheim here is referring to collection of prayers called in Hebrew the Shimonei Esrei, also known as the Amidah, which form the backbone of daily prayer in the Jewish tradition. We Anglicans have the Book of Common Prayer with Matins and Evensong; orthodox Jews have the Siddur with Shacharit and Mincha. When I was returning to my Anglican/Episcopal roots, the main draw was how I realized the Book of Common Prayer was so similar to the Siddur, but focused on the Jesus as the Messiah. As far as the Amidah, the Eighteen Benedictions, are concerned, liturgical historians are pretty sure that they have their origins in the prayers said by the priests and people when they were performing the rites of incense in the Second Temple. In particular, Zechariah seems to be alluding to the 15th of these prayers, the prayer subtitled “Davidic Reign” in the Artscroll translation of the Siddur that was always a favorite of mine:
The offspring [literally, “Branch”] of Your servant David may You speedily cause to flourish, and enhance his pride through Your salvation, for we hope for Your salvation all day long. Blessed are You, Hashem, Who causes the pride of salvation to flourish.
With the birth and naming of the Messiah’s forerunner, we know that the Branch of David, the Dayspring from on High, was indeed beginning to flourish. While noting that his opinion is in the minority among scholars, Edersheim proposes a linguistic connection between whatever Aramaic word that becomes “Dayspring” in Greek and the Hebrew word for “Branch” in the Amidah.
Israel has been praying in hope for God’s Salvation. Zechariah says that God has indeed raised up that mighty salvation in the house of David. God had promised, by the mouth of the Prophets, to save Israel from her enemies, to deliver Israel from those who hate her. As you may know, Jesus’ very name comes from the Hebrew word for salvation, deliverance, rescue. And though at this part of the story, he was still in his mother’s womb, the Salvation from God had already taken human flesh. Through him, God would indeed perform the oath he swore to the Old Testament saints. God had indeed remembered his holy Covenant.
And with the Messiah’s coming also comes the remission of sins. God’s salvation is not merely temporal, it is also eternal. The dominion of Israel by Rome, Babylon, Assyria, and even Egypt wasn’t the biggest problem; a greater problem was the dominion of humanity by sin. But the Light of the World shines in the darkness. He dispels the shadow of death. By his incarnation, passion, death, and resurrection, our Lord Jesus guides our feet into the way of peace. The birth, circumcision, and naming of John the Forerunner was witness to these truths. That witness is what Advent is all about.
Now I must also remind you that Advent isn’t just about remembering the events and anticipation of our Lord’s first coming any more than the Passover is merely a remembrance of the Exodus. No, we are called to use that remembrance as a reminder that he will come again. As glorious as the first Advent was, we anticipate yet a second and more glorious Advent. This is why our Gospel reading for Advent 1 is the Triumphal Entry. We In the Lord’s incarnation, we have the firstfruits of redemption; at his return we will have its consummation. He will come again in glory to judge both the quick and the dead. Advent reminds us of this as well.
This reminder calls us to be joined to the Messiah, first and foremost. We are to put our trust in him, we are to be born again in him, as signified by our baptism. And then we are to live lives marked by watchfulness and preparation. We are to trim our lamps, spiritually speaking. We are to grow in holiness by the aid of the Holy Spirit. As St. Paul says in today’s Epistle reading from Romans 13, “Knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep… now is our salvation nearer than when we believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness and let us put on the armour of light.”
As our Catechism notes, we therefore have a bounden duty to follow Christ, to worship him every Sunday in his Church, to work and pray and give for the spread of his kingdom. And we are to remember that there are many who do not know that the Messiah has come, among whom includes those who daily pray for his coming. We therefore have a duty to share this light with those who are still in darkness, even as we shine his light into the dark places of our souls. Indeed, the lights of Advent and Christmas are supposed to remind us of these truths.
We’ll conclude this morning with the Collect we prayed a few minutes ago. This particular Collect is assigned for the first week of Advent but is special in that we are to pray it every day in Advent because it sums up everything we are to remember in our season of expectation. Let us pray:
Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the amor of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.