At Mass today and tomorrow, we hear the last two sections of the Gospels left before we get to Christ’s birth. Today we read the story of the birth of John the Baptist. Tomorrow we hear his father Zechariah getting his voice back, and proclaiming his prophetic canticle, the Benedictus (Lk 1:68–79).
Like Our Lady’s canticle, the Magnificat, Zechariah’s song looks in both directions. It is full of references to the Law and the Prophets of the Old Testament, it recognises the fulfilment of these texts in the present, and it foresees the tasks waiting for John in the future.
As for you, little child, you shall be called a prophet of the Most High.
For you shall go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people through forgiveness of their sins,
by the merciful heart of our God through which the dawn visits us from on high
to shine on those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to direct our feet into the way of peace. (Lk 1:76–79)
The Church saw the reference to the dawn in this canticle and naturally started using it every morning in the office of Lauds (morning prayer). Christians have always been good at spotting second meanings in the words of scripture. But Zechariah probably wasn’t pointing to the rising of the sun each morning as evidence of God’s mercy — at least not in the first place. The birth of John was like the first glimpse of orange in the sky before the sun rises. The main event — the sunrise — was to follow three months later with the birth of Christ.
It’s not just each morning that the Church thinks of Christ in this way. On Monday at Vespers, on the evening of the shortest day of the year, the Church around the world sang:
O Dayspring, brightness of light eternal, and Sun of Righteousness, come and deliver them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.
The birth of Christ changes the world like the rising of the sun changes the world. In the ancient world, the night was particularly dark, dangerous and terrifying. (We have to remember how much darker a winter’s night was 2000 years ago before the era of light pollution!) To be outside after dark was to risk harm from wild animals or violent criminals. But all of these dangers were dispersed by the rising sun. When the sun rises, those unseen dangers can now be seen for what they really are. The light brings truth, perspective and safety. It shows us where we are, and helps us to find our way to where we are going.
At this time of year, and with the constant stream of bad news of varying degrees flooding the media, it’s all too easy to think that the darkness is winning. But while the daily cycle of dark and light continues, and the days continue to get shorter and then longer again each year, we remember that for Christians, the rising of the sun is a once-in-human-history event. This day has never ended. ‘The night is far gone, the day is at hand,’ St Paul has been reminding us since the beginning of Advent (Rm. 13:12). Just as the dawn of the sun disperses all those earthly threats, the birth of Christ should inspire us with confidence and hope. Because this little child whose birth we recall this week has already conquered sin and death, ‘that safe from the hands of our foes, we might serve him without fear in holiness and justice before him all our days.’ (Lk 1:74–75)
O come, thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.