(A little Christmas diversion from my series on leadership resources.)
Last weekend initiated the season when we are officially to begin anticipating Christmas. You know what season I mean. Even if it’s not marked on your calendar, I’m sure you saw it advertised on TV or received flyers about it in the mail.
Of course, I mean “Black Friday.” Although fairly new to Canada, Black Friday now officially marks the start of Christmas Shopping Season. And if Christmas is all about how much stuff we accumulate under our trees, then Black Friday is truly an appropriate advent to the season.
But there is another Christmas advent, and last week marked the start of that Christmas season, too.
Advent is the season when we anticipate Christ’s birth, weekly reflecting on the hope, peace, love, joy, and light that Christ’s advent (Latin: “coming”) brings. As we’re now entering our second week of Advent, I invite you to anticipate Christmas by meditating with me on the first characters we meet in Luke’s version of the Christmas story and, through them, twelve miracles that anticipate Christ’s birth.
Introduction: The characters (Luke 1.5-7)
Luke introduces the story of Christmas with Zechariah, an elderly, country priest, and Elizabeth, his elderly wife. Both are of priestly descent, both are righteous and blameless in God’s sight and, together, they are childless.
Miracle #1: Zechariah offers incense (Luke 1.8-10)
It is no small matter where Luke opens his scene. Zechariah stands offering incense in the holiest place in the Temple any human (except the High Priest) may access. Drawn by lot within his order, and one of an estimated 18,000 priests, Zechariah’s duty is less than a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence, with many priests never receiving this opportunity. If not a miracle, it is certainly something out of Zechariah’s control.
Miracle #2: An angel of the Lord appears (Luke 1.11)
Clearly not an everyday occurrence!
Miracle #3: God hears Zechariah’s prayer (Luke 1.12-17)
Zechariah’s job in the Temple was to offer the prayers of the people which, given Israel’s occupation by Rome, would have included prayers for deliverance from their Roman oppressors. The angel reports that God has heard Zechariah’s prayer. What is interesting, however, is God’s twofold answer to that prayer:
- God promises Zechariah that Elizabeth will bear him a son; and
- God promises that Israel will be turned to God, a “people prepared.”
The answer to Zechariah’s personal prayer blends with the answer to his priestly, nationalistic prayer – a technique Luke repeats elsewhere (for example, in Mary’s song where Mary transforms into Israel [Luke 1.46-55]).
Miracle #4: Zechariah is made mute (Luke 1.18-22)
As a consequence for disbelieving that God can make Elizabeth fertile, Zechariah miraculously loses his power of speech until this miracle is fulfilled. A further consequence is that Zechariah is unable to fulfil his priestly duty to perform a blessing on the people upon exiting the sanctuary.
Miracle #5: Elizabeth conceives (Luke 1.23-24)
Biologically impossible, Elizabeth miraculously conceives.
Miracle #6: Elizabeth’s shame is removed (Luke 1.25)
We cannot overlook the social stigma attached to barrenness in the ancient Mediterranean world. Elizabeth’s relief that her “shame” has been removed anticipates the status-elevating ministry Jesus will undertake throughout Luke’s Gospel.
Miracle #7: John in the womb recognizes Jesus in the womb (Luke 1.39-41a)
As Luke tells the story, there is no reason Elizabeth would yet know of Mary’s pregnancy. Mary’s virginal conception out of wedlock was both recent and nothing she would widely have broadcast. Likely, Mary was coming to Elizabeth to share the news. Before she has the opportunity, however, Elizabeth’s unborn child not only recognizes that Mary is pregnant but reveals the undisclosed identity of Mary’s child.
Miracle #8: Elizabeth Prophesies (Luke 1.41b-45)
A typical formula in Luke and Acts, when the Holy Spirit appears the next activity is inspired speech. By this, Luke tells us that the words spoken are not from a particular character, but are God’s own authoritative voice.
Miracle #9: Elizabeth names her child (Luke 1.57-63)
It may seem a small matter to us, but in a reversal of gender responsibilities it is Elizabeth and not Zechariah who names John. As Luke tells the story, it seems that Zechariah has not communicated John’s name to his wife (which is why the people all “marvel” when Zechariah confirms John’s name in 1.63). Again, this reversal of status is typical of Luke’s elevation of women throughout his Gospel and Acts.
Miracle #10: Zechariah regains his speech (Luke 1.64-66)
As the angel predicted, Zechariah regains his speech at the time of the promise’s fulfilment. Significantly, Zechariah’s first speech-act is to “bless” – the very obligation he was prevented from completing when exiting the sanctuary.
Miracle #11: Zechariah prophesies (Luke 1.67)
Once again, the Holy Spirit appears followed by inspired speech.
Near the end of his inspired speech, Zechariah identifies part of God’s plan “to shine on those living in darkness.” By itself, this may seem insignificant. But as Luke develops his story through the Gospel and Acts, we see God’s plan unfold as a ministry inclusive of all peoples – including, specifically, gentiles. Luke’s similar use of “light” language elsewhere draws from Isaiah 49.6: “I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” In Zechariah’s prayer, we have one of the earliest hints of the miraculous mission yet to be disclosed. (See Simeon’s prophetic prayer in Luke 2.32; Paul and Barnabas in Acts 13.47).
It is fitting that this last Advent miracle focuses on light, because that is how Advent finally leads to Christmas: The final candle to light is the white candle, often representing Christ as the light of the world.
As you prepare for Christmas this Advent, I pray you, too, will know Christ as the light of the world, and that your anticipation of Christmas will be filled with the hope, peace, love, and joy that mark this season.