When the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, "See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent."; Nathan said to the king, "Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you."
But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: "Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth.
And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom.
I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.";
Then John's father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:
"Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favorably 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 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."
Once rendered mute for doubting God's word, Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist suddenly regains his voice, to loudly proclaim that God's promises to Israel are being fulfilled. His is a song of Advent, as we wait for the light that has already come and is still yet to come. Before God's messenger (Gabriel) appeared to Mary, he came to Zechariah with a startling promise like that first made to Abraham centuries before. Elizabeth and Zechariah's advanced age is a clear parallel with Sarah and Abraham, when they too conceived their long hoped-for son, Isaac. Zechariah belongs to a priestly rank in Israel and Elizabeth too is a descendent of Aaron's priestly family. Thus the son they will raise is destined to lead people towards God. Then too, Gabriel promises that John will be filled with the spirit and power of Elijah, a great prophet who turned his people to repentance (Malachi 4:5-6). Zechariah's doubt at Gabriel's words parallels Sarah's unbelieving laugh at the idea that she could bear a child at her age (Genesis 18:12-15).
The background to Zechariah's song is the biblical belief that God's promises are fulfilled. When at first Zechariah doesn't believe, he is rendered mute until the day the promised event occurs. Eight days after John's birth, Zechariah and Elizabeth take him to be circumcised, following the ritual commanded to Abraham (Genesis 17:12.) When the time comes to name the child, Elizabeth insists that he be given the name John, as God had prescribed. His friends turned to Zechariah, who confirmed the name - and immediately he regained his speech and began praising God, whose promises are always fulfilled.
Zechariah's song can become our own, this Christmas Eve, as we seek a revived awareness of God in our lives. We see light on the horizon, and await the full, dazzling light of God's incarnation in Jesus Christ. We find ourselves in a time marked by the already and the not-yet. A light has dawned but doesn't seem yet to have reached the deeper darkness in and around us. As disciples of Christ we live always in a kind of Advent-waiting, knowing that the light has come to our world, yet still awaiting for it to shine in fullest measure. We may even, like Zechariah, doubt that such a glorious future is possible. But also with him, we can praise God for the dawn, seeing it as the first shimmering of the final, full radiance of what God has in store.
For Zion's sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem's sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch. The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will give. You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married. For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.
Paul stood up and with a gesture began to speak:
"You Israelites, and others who fear God, listen. The God of this people Israel chose our ancestors and made the people great during their stay in the land of Egypt, and with uplifted arm he led them out of it...
When he had removed him, he made David their king. In his testimony about him he said, 'I have found David, son of Jesse, to be a man after my heart, who will carry out all my wishes.' Of this man's posterity God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as he promised; before his coming John had already proclaimed a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel. And as John was finishing his work, he said, 'What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. No, but one is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of the sandals on his feet.'
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."
All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us." When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
For the people of the Old Testament, light and darkness were more than natural phenomena. They tended to associate them often with virtue and wickedness in the community, and also with the day of the Lord's coming. Indeed, at Qumran on the Dead Sea shoreline, during the life-time of Jesus, light and darkness were seen as two opposing kingdoms, and the sun's victory over darkness was held to be a symbol of the triumph of faith over the blind pursuit of evil. "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And God said, Let there be light, and there was light." So begins the Bible account of the first creation, and when it was ended, God saw all that he had made, and indeed it was very good.
But this original goodness and justice was broken when our first parents abused the freedom of will granted them by God, so that as the prophet Isaiah says "darkness came to cover the earth again, and thick darkness the peoples." (Is 60:2), To dispel this darkness, a new creation was needed, and the ideal of goodness and perfection became a living reality, when the light of Christ came into the world. "The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; for those who lived in a land of deep shadow a light has shone." (Is 9:2). For God, who had created man in his own image and likeness, had now identified with the human race, and by assuming the body of a child in the image of man, had lowered himself and become one of us.)
It is traditional (in more northerly climes) to associate snow with Christmas, and when it does come and shrouds everything with its whiteness, a stillness settles over the countryside, especially at night-time. That combination of darkness and stillness set the scene for the first Christmas. As the Book of Wisdom states, "When all things were in quiet silence, and the night was in the middle of her course, your almighty Word leaped down from heaven, from your royal throne." (Wis 18:14f). It was as if God was saying a second time, "Let there be light.".. let the gloom and darkness, which to such an extent exemplify the fallen and corrupt nature of the human race, be lifted, ushering in a new age of glory to God and peace on earth among all its people. And so an angel of the Lord appeared to some humble shepherds tending their flocks in the enveloping darkness, and the brightness of the Lord shone round them. "Do not be afraid," the angel reassured them. ."Listen, I bring you news of great joy, a joy to be shared by the whole people. Today a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord."
We too must listen, pay attention in the stillness of our hearts, and then, like the shepherds, hasten eagerly to draw near to Christ. We must search for him and in the quietness of prayer understand anew our need for Christ. St Augustine held that prior to conceiving Christ in her womb, Mary first conceived him in her heart, by faith. The Church, too, has a part in sharing Christ with the world. But we members, are the Church, and so in some sense we too can bring Christ to birth, in our time and place.