Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Vision of Christmas Grace

Today's gospel (Luke 1:5-25) has one of my favorite lines: Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah and were amazed that he stayed so long in the sanctuary. But when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary (Luke 1:21-22).
I can think of few sentences which so dramatically illustrate the difference between a traditional world-view and a modern one, between an "enchanted" universe and a  secularized, rationalist one. If something unexpected happened to me at Mass that produced a sudden change in behavior or an obvious disability like being unable to speak, how many people would immediately jump to the conclusion that I had seen a vision? 
In a pre-modern universe, however, such an interpretation appeared perfectly reasonable. Indeed, in his first sermon, St. Peter explained the Pentecost phenomenon with reference to these words from the prophet Joel: Then afterward I will pour out my spirit upon all mankind. Your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions" (Joel 3:1; Acts 2:17).
Peter interpreted Joel's words as a sign of the new beginning initiated by the Risen Lord's gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church. It was Peter's way of inviting his hearers to open up their hearts and minds to God's intrusion into our world.  Zechariah undoubtedly believed that in theory, but he had a hard time when something new and wonderful was actually happening in his own life. The "modern" rationalist in Zechariah answered Gabriel's good news with worldly incredulity: I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years (Luke 1:18). 
But isn't it so that one reason we celebrate Christmas is to transform the incredulity of our tired old world by the infusion of God's rejuvenating grace?

The otherwise ordinary story of old man Zechariah's once-in-a-lifetime turn to offer incense in the Holy Place is transformed by the Archangel Gabriel's appearance - as Gabriel had earlier appeared to Daniel at the hour of the evening sacrifice (Daniel 9:21) - telling Zechariah that his prayer has been heard (Luke 1:13). If Zechariah was actually praying for an heir, his prayer had likely been a hopeless one. Everything in the story suggests he had no expectation of that such a prayer would be heard - as is so often the case in human affairs, as is likely often the case with most of us much of the time. But Zechariah's prayer was caught up in that of the whole assembly of the people praying outside (Luke 1:10) - Israel's prayer, itself a surrogate for the longing of the entire world.

That the world continues to express its longing despite all the rational arguments against any such hope is what makes the world even now still a fertile ground for Crhistmas grace.

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