Thursday, December 6, 2018
Daily Reminder of Hope
Earlier this week, my friend and colleague Steve Pankey acknowledged in a post that when Canticle 16, The Song of Zechariah, comes up in Morning Prayer, that part of him that is still only half-awake wishes we could skip the rehearsal of Old Testament prophecy and begin with the good stuff: "You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High." I sympathize with that. Often, if the canticles are long (Te Deum, anyone?), I skip them entirely and offer a moment of silent reflection as a response to the readings. But, when it comes to Zechariah's Song, I have a different experience.
The Principal of the seminary where I was for two years insisted that The Song of Zechariah be read every day in Morning Prayer. The only acceptable exception was the one day when that passage of scripture was appointed as the second lesson. That was his thing. I don't know exactly where that motivation came from, but I think it was a liturgically-minded evangelical's reaction to the anglo-catholic's insistence that Mary's Song never be omitted from Evening Prayer. If you've been to Evensong or say Evening Prayer, you'll notice that, even in our twentieth-century prayer book, the expectation is that you will say the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis every evening. Sure, the rubrics allow another selection, but those are the only two printed within the text of the office. And my Principal was right: the history of Anglican worship expected that the Benedictus would be the second canticle in Morning Prayer. (See 1662 BCP: "Then shall be read in like manner the Second Lesson, taken out of the New Testament. And after that, the Hymn following; except when that shall happen to be read in the Chapter for the day, or for the Gospel on Saint John Baptist’s Day.)
If you were leading Morning Prayer and dared to skip it, by the time you had made your way to your study and opened your e-mail, you'd have a missive from the Principal reminding you that such an omission was not allowed. In part because of his Benedictus fastidiousness and in part because we read it every single day, Morning Prayer doesn't feel right to me when we don't read it. I also use an online format to provide Morning Prayer, and I haven't found one that allows me to indicate my preference for Zechariah's Song every day. Because of that, whenever it happens to come up, I delight in saying the whole thing. I'll gladly skip the Song of Moses or the Benedicite, but I relish in the words that Zechariah proclaims.
Listen to the way John the Baptist's father understood the story of salvation unfolding in the ministry of his son: "This was the oath [God] swore to our father Abraham, to set us free from the hands of our enemies, free to worship him without fear, holy and righteous in his sight all the days of our life." What good news that is! Hear his confidence that God is coming to God's people: "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." Remember, Luke doesn't locate this canticle after John the Baptist had matured in his ministry. And he doesn't place it as a retrospective on Jesus' resurrection. This is given to us right at the beginning. (Luke doesn't tell us how old JBap was when his daddy sang this song, but the implication is that it happened right after the child was named.) This is a statement of faith--of confidence in the future God was bringing to God's people. Isn't that something we need to hear every day?
Faith isn't a backward looking proposition. What has happened in the past is the foundation of our faith, but we aren't asked to believe in the past. We're asked to believe in the future. We are asked not to have faith that the tomb is empty. We're asked to have faith that God will rescue us and that the empty tomb is our sign, our proof, that God will keep God's promise. Each day, we wake up not to wrestle with the doctrines of our religion but to wrestle with the doubts about what each day will bring. Will I be ok? Will my family be ok? Will my church be ok? Will our country be ok? The answer in God is yes. Faith is seeing each day as another day when the dawn from on high will break upon us and bring salvation to those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.