And you, child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of all their sins.
No human being can pay full attention to the words that he or she is praying every single day, and apparently this is how God would have it. Sometimes, particularly at crisis points in our lives, we feel these words with our whole heart. They seem to burn in our chests, and bring tears to our eyes. We find that we mean them in ways that remain unfathomable, and on rare occasions a new interpretation of a line or image will come to us.
I will never forget the day I realized that the “you, child” of the Benedictus could refer not only to John the Baptist but to myself, and to any of us who know that we are asked “to go before the Lord to prepare the way.” That morning, and every morning I pray this poem, I receive a challenge, whether I consciously acknowledge it or not, an image of holiness to strive for. I am asked to share with others “the tender compassion of God” as it breaks like the dawn upon us. I am asked to cast its light “on those who dwell in the shadow of death,” and allow my feet to be guided, this day, and all days, “into the way of peace.”
Kathleen Norris – Quotidian Mysteries p.81
When I first read the book quoted above, and came to this paragraph, I veered up, delighted with recognition1, because she touched very closely on my own feelings at those words “you, child”. Whenever in morning prayer I come to the part where it is said: “And you, child, shall be a prophet”, I feel as if God speaks to a child within me, that needs to grow and learn what it means to proclaim the freedom and the salvation by forgiveness of sins. Therefore I want to ponder this, let that child grow, in order to come to that wonderful end: 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.
This way of thinking fits in with what we learned in the latest Christian Classics meeting on the mystical dimension of the liturgy. Namely that the liturgy is a helpful guide for the things we need to experience in our soul. Now, besides morning prayer, in this time of the year this song of Zechariah is even more close to heart, since in Advent we prepare for Jesus’ coming, which is exactly what John the Baptist also came to do. So, all the more reason to try to enter into this poem or prayer by Zechariah, and listen to these words, and let them mold me.
Unfortunately I always stumble a bit on that line: “give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of sins2”. The contrast in that sentence strikes me: salvation being so light, but sins so dark, and speaking about these things so difficult. I struggle to contain all the parts. I long for the salvation, would love to share that, but shrink to hear about the sins, let alone speak about them. I would wish that this ‘forgiveness’ was easy, but it doesn’t seem so to me. John the Baptist went round proclaiming the need for repentance. Is that really what we need to do? Is it really liberating to tell people what’s all wrong with them? Certainly we should not make light of all the evil that is in the world. Nor can forgiveness mean that we ignore the obvious wrongs. But isn’t it very hypocritical to always point out other people’s sins? And what about me? I cannot leave myself out of this. I always feel it immediately: when I judge others, I also judge myself. Yet perhaps that is precisely the key to find the light. Stop fearing my own judgement, stop finding excuses, be open and honest, and accept that we all need forgiveness and guidance into the way of peace.
One person who really learned this well, is the poet Dante. I began to appreciate the depth and healing power of his book The Divine Comedy when I read the book How Dante can save your life by Rod Dreher. This motivated me to read this great but difficult work. I have now read part 1, The Inferno, of which Fr. David always tells me that I should not have started with that, as it’s rather depressing. But actually, I found it most refreshing that someone just has the guts to name bad things for what they are: bad. Especially in times like Dante’s, when sins were very prevalent even in the church3, we need the clarity of free speech to clear up all the confusion. Not to distinguish ourselves from others, but just as Dante, we may find how much we ourselves have become tangled up in these shadows. However, we shouldn’t stay there, but turn to the light and allow ourselves to be set free.
Finally I have come closer to this beautiful word that I find so difficult to grasp: forgiveness4. I probably made things much more difficult than they really are. Forgiveness is just that which sets us free. Free from the fear of condemnation. We usually think foremost of forgiveness as releasing us from the fear of God condemning us, but I just realized that can be afraid of powers of condemnation within ourselves. Forgiveness defeats those powers, enables us to stand up, see where we are and open our eyes to the way of peace.
- Just as I was instantly drawn into the book as she started describing her first experience of a Roman Catholic mass and her astonishment at the priest’s ‘doing the dishes’, something that I always find incredibly odd too!
- At home I use the ‘Daily Prayer’ app in contemporary language, which has a slightly different wording than how it’s said in morning prayer in Church.
- It’s not for nothing that Dante depicts a pope in hell, for more background information I can really recommend the introductory course on Dante by ‘The great courses’. Without some introduction it will be really hard to understand what the poem is about
- Still working on it, though. But for a fuller exposition of the subject, see the sermon of Trinity 22