The Dawn from on High

Thursday in the 4th Week of Advent: 2 Samuel 7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a, 16, Luke 1:67-79.

Christmas Eve! Ah, the Dickensian glow that illuminates my image of this day. It’s the day of antique sweets in lamp-lit Victorian windows, snowball fights and sledding, and the night Scrooge finds a heart. But this Christmas Eve of my mind is based on novels and centuries of traditions from various nations and tribes. We customarily think that the original one was very different, in a desert culture without any of these comfy trappings. But was it any less “magical” feeling?

Mosaic of Joseph and Mary traveling to Bethlehem (1315-1320), Chora Church in Istanbul | Wikimedia Commons.

Let’s consider Bethlehem: December and January offer cold, often rainy days. Snow is rare, but not unheard of because Bethlehem is actually on a plateau 2,550 feet above sea level. (This is all the more interesting since the Dead Sea just 30 miles east of Bethlehem (by car, that is; it’s about 20 miles as the crow flies) is 1,100 feet below sea level.) Joseph, leading a donkey with a very pregnant Mary on it, have likely spent a few days in Jerusalem, packed with travelers trying to get to their ancestral homes for the census taking. Could there have been shops with sweets? Sure. How about kids frolicking in the streets? Sure!

They leave the cacophony to hustle the final 6 miles southeast to Bethlehem. The town is packed, and there’s a fair chance they’re wet and cold and looking for a warm fire to settle in — especially welcome before Mary gives birth. We can imagine their sense of relief, even at just a stable. It’s a place they can be out of the space of strangers with curious eyes and expectations of social niceties. Joseph likely got a fire going, unpacked some blankets, and heated up some food and water while Mary began her birthing pains.

So, on the surface, we find some similarities that link our current experience of Christmas Eve with theirs. But as we turn to today’s readings, we see that there are deeper feelings — anticipation for something great that we feel in our hearts — that link us more strongly to them.

Today’s first reading is the same as this past Sunday’s first reading. We find King David musing about building God a house, but God tells the prophet Nathan in a dream that He is the one building a house for King David — a line of heirs who will produce a son that God will be a father to. So, the first impression we have today is an earthly debt we owe to our God and an unlikely response from Him: a waving off of this debt and promise, in fact, of something new and awesome that He will give us. The promise of a great Christmas present! Now that is something that resonates with the little boy on Christmas Eve in me!

Detail from Zacharias Writes Down the Name of his Son (1486-1490), Domenico Ghirlandaio | Wikimedia Commons.

The gospel reading is a continuation of St. Luke’s gospel from the past few days. This is the great Canticle of Zachariah, also called the Benedictus, that he prophesies directly after his lips are loosened by the Lord. The first thing we hear is that he is “filled with the Holy Spirit,” which means that he is inspired by and experiencing the same Person of God who conceived Jesus in Mary’s womb and moved John in Elizabeth’s womb as Jesus came near. We often consider the Spirit as “fleeting” since He comes and goes like the wind in the world. Yet He operates with all the power, memory, and fullness of God the Father. The Holy Spirit connects moments of salvation history in an unexpected way. His presence can connect a person with all the great kairos of God’s coming to humanity, instilling a sense of peace and gravity that only comes with one aware of and active within that great plan. Moments with the Holy Spirit exist outside of linear time because they are an immersion in God Himself. The prophet Jeremiah, Zechariah the father of John, and St. Catherine of Siena (among many, many others) exist together in God when they are “filled with the Holy Spirit.” This sharing in the Spirit is what unites our Catholic (that is, universal) Church in a mystical relationship with the saints and angels. And nothing seems to better describe this moment of being filled by the Spirit than the great mixture of anticipation and joy of the coming of the Savior. Perhaps the feeling generated by the Holy Spirit is the true “Christmas spirit,” and we’ve just let secular notions replace the real thing.

When we hear the Canticle of Zechariah, prophesied on the moment of Elijah’s return, the final prophet’s entry upon the scene, we share in the same heartfelt feelings of Christmas Eve. Zechariah speaks here on behalf of all of us recognizing that tomorrow brings the greatest Christmas present of all: Christ Himself.

A short sidebar: isn’t it fascinating that Zechariah prophesies at the coming of his son, the great, last prophet? What I mean is that the trumpets heralding the coming of the Christ Event are simply multiplying. We know that John will be the great herald of the Messiah, but we even have a voice heralding the herald! We must imagine that the God-fearing people of Judea were tingling with prophetic trumpets in their ears.

The Kingdom (20th century), unknown illustrator | Image from Could this be the shared vision of those who have been “filled with the Holy Spirit”?

On to the Benedictus. The Holy Spirit, through his human voice Zachariah, is thanking the Father, bending the knee to the Son, and encouraging the Baptist. This is what the world must do on Christmas Eve. “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; for he has come to his people and set them free. He has raised up for us a mighty Savior, born of the house of his servant David.” We know this is the Spirit talking because He speaks of the Father and Son long before mentioning John, even though the mouth is Zachariah’s and he’s speaking at his own son John’s circumcision. The thanks and blessing go first to the Father, and the honor to the Son of the Father, the Messiah. Next is the profession of faith that leads to absolute trust in God: He has spoken through the prophets, He promised to show mercy, He gave an oath to Abraham. The Spirit knits together seamlessly God’s plan despite the thousands of years separating events. This is kairos time. 

This being said, the Spirit can turn His focus on the baby John: “You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way.” The Spirit enables Zechariah to give a fatherly mission and blessing upon his son, the prophet-to-be. Even though the Spirit is the One talking, the man Zechariah is still there and in full possession of his faculties. He would not know his son’s destiny without the Spirit, and we can imagine the tears of joy that filled his eyes, how honored he must have felt to have Elijah returned as his son.

These feelings of honor deepen into a river of gratitude and awe as he announces the Messiah, anticipating his son’s work: “In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.” The imagery of light is beautifully employed. Christ is the “dawn from on high,” sent with “tender compassion” by God, and “breaking” upon us. This gentle yet fierce dawn, brilliant and powerful, shines on the people of darkness who dwell in the “shadow of death.” Christ’s light is so pure it illuminates the Way, “guiding our feet into the way of peace.” As Christ will tell us, that Way is straight back to the Father, the One who has given us the dawn.

The Spirit can find no better image for humans to understand the Christmas gift given by the Father. The Spirit tells us through Isaiah 750 years earlier: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light … and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom” (Is 9:2a, 7a). And the Spirit will speak through St. Paul 40-50 years later: “For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light” (Eph 5:8). Light is used from the beginning of scriptures (God said let there be light and there was light) to the end as a way to describe God’s plan and the purity of things infused by Him. Light is the work of prophecy, revealing truth, as we see in Zechariah today.

The Sun (Solen), 1911, Edvard Munch | Wikimedia Commons.

Light — real, life-saving light in human form — is also the Christmas gift that makes us giddy for Christmas morning. In a passive way, we can receive this great, undeserved gift, but do we recognize the extent of the gift? If we really receive Him, He begins to transform us. We receive blessings as we bend our will to his. We start to glow with His light. And as He taught us, our light is not meant to be hidden under a bushel basket. Sharing His light with others, we participate in the work of God here on earth. This is a step towards divinification or theosis for ourselves, but we think not of our own rewards. The important bit is that light. That precious dawning sun for humanity that we suddenly, amazingly can permit to shine through our very selves.

Now that’s a Christmas gift!

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