I got up the past few mornings early, unable to sleep. The night seemed heavy and impenetrable. Memories of yet another massacre hung in my head as I settled in to do my morning prayers. As I read the Lord’s Prayer, I closed my eyes and said those words slowly and deliberately, holding in my heart all those on my prayer list, especially the families in San Bernardino who have had a new identity thrust open them: that of victims of violence and mass murder. I opened my eyes, and saw that the sun had miraculously risen again, suddenly and stealthily, and in that roseate light my eyes fell upon these words in the Prayer Book from the Song of Zechariah:
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.
We will hear these words again as the canticle for this upcoming second Sunday in Advent. We will say together the words of hope and anticipation, words that express the joy of longing almost within reach. A prayer of thanks for God’s care and concern over us even in the midst of turmoil, and that calls us to turn, to repent, to change our orientation from darkness and toward light.
Even in the chill of approaching winter, in the shadow of terror that hangs over our world, it seems all to easy to respond to violence with violence , to meet fear with fear. In a time that seems all too enmeshed in aggression, in rejection, in hate, the Song of Zechariah holds out the hope that we can be led back to paths of peace from darkness and the shadow of death—that same terrible place mentioned in the 23rd Psalm, the place where hope seems the dimmest, when all life and hope hangs by a thread. But that is also where God waits with us, sending forth light in the darkness to allow us to change our orientation toward death and fear, and toward light and hope.
Singer/songwriter Tracy Chapman has a beautiful song, called “Change,” that ends with this repeated question: “If you saw the face of God and Love, would you change?” Advent is a time that reminds us that change is coming, but that change requires our agency, if only through being willing to persevere, to hope and then to act. Chapman’s song asks, “What chain reaction, what cause and effect makes you turn around, makes you forgive and forget?” Too often we are told that nothing will change. But what if Zechariah’s song points us toward an answer? What if we turn away from the darkness and hopelessness that weighs us down, and instead turn our eyes toward the shattering light of hope, and then put our feet on the path of peace instead? The light of God is not just comfort but strength, strength to envision a better world for ourselves, and to act to bring it to birth.
Have we ever needed words such as these more? Zechariah’s song is full of hope, anticipating a victory for those who have been afraid for far too long. Zechariah sings of freedom—freedom from fear, from the hands of those who hate us. If you remember the last time that you felt gripped by fear, you remember how it may have felt like a vise, like bands across your chest, making it hard to breathe, to move, to speak.
Our way out of the darkness starts with opening our eyes to hope—hope strengthened by the knowledge that we are called to change, to turn our feet from paths of fear to paths of peace.
Blessed be God, indeed, for God has come to the people and set them free—free to worship without fear. And fear seems the biggest enemy of all for us—fear of the sudden darkness and cold that steals upon us when we turn our eyes from the light we hope is just over the horizon. The Song of Zechariah reminds us that it is fear that binds us, but God is there to give us the strength to break free, and once free to determine for ourselves to put our feet on a different path.
Leslie Scoopmire is a retired teacher and postulant for the priesthood in the Diocese of Missouri. She attends Eden Theological Seminary in Webster Groves, MO. She is seminarian-intern at Church of the Good Shepherd , Town and Country, Missouri, in the Diocese of Missouri, and tweets daily prayers and news of note @Scoopexplainsit. Her blog is Abiding in Hope.
Image: “Dawn from on high” by Leslie Scoopmire