67 Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:
68 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
69 He has raised up a mighty savior for us
in the house of his servant David,
70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
71 that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
72 Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us 74 that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, 75 in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.
76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
78 By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
80 The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.
Luke 1: 67-80 (NRSV)
(For use with the MORNING Daily Prayer)
In most settings where I have served as a worship leader, the goal of the worship committee for the Christmas Eve Service was clear: keep the mood quiet, and reflective, and calm. We had to negotiate the issues of crying babies and intoxicated college students. Our music selections were consistently on the “peaceful” versus the “marching” side: “O little town of Bethlehem;” “In the bleak midwinter;” “Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright.” We dimmed the lights. We lit candles. Sometimes we even instructed the congregation to leave without talking!
Then, this year, into such a “peaceful” context, crashes Zechariah’s song. It’s a Victory Song. It’s a Victory Shout. It’s almost a Victory Taunt. When God’s people got squeezed tight, and shut down; when the commands of the Pharaoh became murderous, and the fetters on our ankles began to cut; when we faced a world that not only seemed out of control, but stacked against us; we dreamed of a day when God might send a savior, a messiah, to set us free. “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 . . . that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us (verses 68, 69, and 71).” Strike up the band! Let loose the confetti! Let’s have a parade!
“Now, now,” the preacher sometimes says. “Let’s not get too excited. God’s people thought that this savior would make some changes, but he really just came to be with us, as a baby, in a manger. All is calm; all is bright. Yes, God came to redeem us from our sins, but not to redeem us and others from the structures that bind us. Light your candles and go in peace.” And thus, the incarnation is reduced to a blessing on the way things are rather than the opening salvo of a new age that will push us toward where we ought to be. We leave the sanctuary quietly, reflectively, not only without talking, but without expecting transformation – in ourselves or in our world.
It is true that this victory will come in surprising ways. It’s more like a birthing than a battle (the language of “tender mercy” in verse 78 has its provenance in the gut/bowels of God). It creeps up on us more like the dawn (verse 78) than with any explosions deemed “shock and awe.” Its goal is to guide ours’ and others’ feet into the ways of peace (verse 79) – but this is not peace without repentance (John the Baptist will make this clear), nor peace without justice (of which the scriptures seldom if ever speak).
Maybe it’s time to try out some of our newer hymns this Christmas Eve. I’ve got a suggestion. It’s sometimes called the Canticle of Turning, but it shows up in Glory to God under the title “My Soul Cries Out with a Joyful Shout.” Just one stanza. Let’s call it our Christmas Eve prayer. But, my friends, let’s pray it with gusto!
A Prayer for Christmas Eve
Though the nations rage from age to age, we remember who holds us fast;
God’s mercy must deliver us from the conqueror’s crushing grasp.
This saving word that our forebears heard is the promise which holds us bound,
Till the spear and rod can be crushed by God who is turning the world around. Amen.
Dean of Union Presbyterian Seminary in Charlotte
Associate Professor of Preaching & Pastoral Leadership