This week’s readings are here.
The Psalm this week comes from Luke’s Gospel (1:68-79). It is one of several songs or hymns that Luke records in his nativity scene (among the others are the Song of Simeon and Mary’s Magnificat). New Testament scholars suppose that Luke was drawing on hymns being sung by early Christians in his community when he wrote the gospel but in their current form they reflect his literary genius and overarching theological concerns.
Although we say, sing, or hear a psalm in every Eucharist, it probably doesn’t dawn on most of us that the Psalter is a hymnal; that when we say the psalms we are joining our voices with those of Christians from the two millennia before us as well as with the Jewish community of today and previous generations.
The Song of Zechariah is replete with the language and imagery of the Hebrew Bible and the Psalms. In fact, like the other Lucan canticles, one can find in Hebrew scripture parallels for almost every word, phrase, or image. But it goes beyond a simple parroting of earlier language and imagery. In its current form, the canticle connects earlier scripture and prophecy with the current moment. The first section refers to David and thus draws our attention to the prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible. The second section refers to Abraham and thus refers us to Torah, the Law. Here we have the Law and the Prophets pointing the way forward to the present moment and the coming of the Messiah. The same thing is true in Luke’s description of Zechariah and Elizabeth which resonates powerfully with both Abraham and Sarah and Elkanah and Hannah. Both were barren couples.
To sing, say, or reflect on this hymn in Advent is to place ourselves in the middle of the season’s expectant hope. Our words echo the words of ancient Hebrews and first-century Jewish Christians. With them, we proclaim our faith in God’s promises; we look forward to our salvation. And we can sing from the position of Zechariah, who with the birth of his son knows that “in the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shalll break upon us.”
One of the miracles of Advent is that for a few brief weeks, all of salvation history, the story of God’s reaching out to us, is collapsed into our lives, into the darkening days of December. Through our prayers and worship, we unite with the voices, the hopes and faith of countless generations, in awaiting the coming of the Savior. God’s tender compassion comes to us as it has to the generations before us and will continue to come for generations to come.
Of course, Luke was writing his gospel decades after the events he was describing. He may have been writing decades after the destruction of the temple in 70 CE (some scholars think Luke was written in the 120s). He, his readers, and the community of Christians among whom he worshiped were singing hymns of hope and faith that were not reflected by the reality in which they lived. The Savior in whom they believed had not materially changed their situation. They were as poor and oppressed as ever. But still they could sing that God had raised up a mighty Savior; promised forgiveness of sins, and guided their feet into the way of peace. And this Sunday, so will we. I pray we believe it.