Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:
‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty saviour for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon[h] 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.’
The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.
Christmas Eve, only one day to go before the big day itself. Christmas Eve, a time of anticipation of all that lies ahead, with family and friends, with gifts given and received, with solemn or celebratory services. Christmas Eve, heaving a sigh of relief at the end of a busy Advent and looking for a moment of calm, or gearing up for an even busier Christmas Day. Christmas Eve, a time when the memories of those who are no longer with us come home to us, and when the unfulfilled dreams of the embodiment of God’s love amongst the hungry and the suffering cause us to lament.
Zechariah and Elizabeth had gone through difficult times over many years, yearning for a child. In their old age their yearning was fulfilled. Zechariah calls out in praise to God, in words that have been turned into song over many centuries. ‘Blessed be the God of Israel…’. Some have imagined Zechariah holding his son John in his arms as he uttered the words of the Benedictus. These words point to the sweep of Jewish history, through God’s power at work in the prophets, in David and in Abraham. The words draw together past memories, with the present moment of birth, and the promise of future fulfilment.
On Christmas Eve we remember past Christmases with their joys and sorrows. We look again to the coming of Jesus among us, the gift of the Holy Spirit to Mary. We lament unfulfilled dreams and anticipate the simple reality of the birth of God’s son, present at one time for all time.
With the full heart of Zechariah, let us sing God’s praise. Let us pray for the dawn of God’s mercy, which Zechariah anticipated, to break in again on us.
In your tender mercy, may your light dawn in my life; may that light illuminate my darkness, give me courage in the face of death, and guide me in the paths of peace. May this Christmas be a time of blessing in the midst of joy or lament, in the giving and receiving of gifts, in activity or inactivity. May my life echo Zechariah’s song of praise and hope, at this time, for all time.
The Rev’d Elizabeth Welch, minister, Clapton Park United Reformed Church, Hackney, London.