Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, New Orleans
Zechariah and Elizabeth's neighbors watch a cosmic drama play out before their eyes. For months, Zechariah has been rendered speechless as a consequence of his disbelief. Elizabeth, miraculously pregnant all this time, gives birth to a son. Refusing to follow the traditional practice of naming a son after his grandfather or father, she names her child John. Over the objections of family and friends, Zechariah confirms the name in writing, and his tongue is set free. His first words are blessings upon God for the birth of his son. Watching all this, the neighbors become increasingly fearful, saying, “What, then, will this child be?” Though they do not yet know the specifics of John's ministry, they feel his arrival signal the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy: their freedom is at hand. The long-promised Messiah is coming! Zechariah's song of praise recalls God's promise of freedom to His people and confirms what they have all believed for generations. The Lord has never and will never abandon His people to the slavery of sin. The sign of our freedom is the Christ-child born to Mary and Joseph. And John—the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth—is his herald.
Zechariah's hymn of praise lays out for us—over and over again—a historical pattern: “[The Lord] has come to his people and set them free. . .He promised to show mercy to our fathers. . .He swore to our father Abraham: to set us free from the hand of our enemies. . .free to worship Him without fear. . .and to guide our feet into the way of peace. What prompts Zechariah to sing this hymn of thanksgiving? Notice that he addresses his new born son, "You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High. . .” Why is this child to be called a prophet? “. . .for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way. . .” How will John the prophet prepare the way of the Lord? “[by giving] his people knowledge of salvation [through] the forgiveness of their sins.” And it is through the forgiveness of our sins that we are set free. Since the establishment of the covenant with Abraham, God has promised His people freedom from the slavery of sin. Through the Law and the Prophets and with the advent of the Messiah, God's faithful people have been shown a path toward salvation, salutem in Latin, health. Our salvation is rightness with God, spiritual health, the fullness of peace.
Lest we forget, let Zechariah's song bring to mind again the whole point of our celebrations today and tomorrow: we are free; we are made free, given our freedom. We exchange gifts to mark the day. We do not buy stuff from one another. We do not work for one another in order to earn the stuff under the tree. We give gifts; we exchange graces, freely given and freely received blessings in celebration of our release from the bonds of sin. We cannot freely give or receive if we are bound by sin. Therefore, Zechariah reminds us to be prophets of the Lord, to prepare God's people for the arrival of the Christ-child, to give one another knowledge of our salvation by forgiving those who have sinned against us.
When you receive a brightly wrapped present from under the tree, you say, “Thank you!” Under a brightly lit star, lying in a stable, a tightly wrapped child presents himself to you as a gift. Receive his gift and say, “Thank you!” And do more than receive his gift of freedom and give him thanks, give freedom again and again. Release all those who have offended you. Free all those who have hurt you. Do not “dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.” Be guided onto the way of peace.
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