The Gospel of Luke reveals to us an angelic prophecy regarding the birth of John the Baptist that was given to Zechariah. I never read this text (Luke 1:5-25) without imagining what it would have been like to go about one’s priestly service in the days of Herod only to have “an angel (later said to be Gabriel in verse 19) of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense” (1:11). When Zechariah saw this angelic person he was “terrified, fear overwhelmed him” (1:12). I’ll bet he was terrified.
Let that scene sink into your mind for a moment. This man was “overwhelmed” in sheer terror at what he saw. But what he heard was even more difficult to handle. His prayers were to be answered in the pregnancy of his wife Elizabeth, a woman who was “getting on in years” (1:18). Because Zechariah did not believe what the angel told him he would “become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur” (1:20).
Luke then gives an account of another visit from the angel Gabriel. This visit came several months later to a teenage virgin girl in Nazareth named Mary (1:26-38). Mary went to see Elizabeth and Luke records her song of praise. The glorious “Magnificat” follows. Then comes the account of John’s birth followed by a prophecy given by Zechariah at his birth. It is to this prophecy that my attention is drawn this Christmas Eve. In the last stanza of Zechariah’s prophecy we read:
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace (Luke 1:78-79).
When I look around on this day I see a great festival of lights. We display lights, in our windows and on our trees. There are so many lights that we could call this “the season of lights.” Yet, just a few days ago the longest night of the year took place. Now we will see the addition of one minute of light with the dawning of each new day until June 21. Winter has begun, the dark, hard, bitter cold, days of winter are here, at least in the Midwest. But each day draws us nearer to new beginnings.
I am drawn to this lunar reality and then to the words of the father of John who says that God “give(s) light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.” This shattering of the dark is greater than all the lights and festivals of this wonderful season. This light “from on high” draws us into the “way of peace.” In a world of conflict, war, terror and death this Light brings peace!
As we see these lights all around let them all remind us of the Light who shines his grace and peace upon the dark world, and into our darkened and easily confused hearts. This Light never goes out, it never dims. It is eternal and it saves all who see it in faith and turn to God. We do not create this Light, it merely shines upon us so that we are found by God’s grace alone. This is the real joy of Christmas!