November 22, 2010

Guiding Our Feet into the Way of Peace

Russian icon of Zechariah,
holding a scroll containing the
opening words of the Benedictus
(18th century, Kizhi Monastery, Russia).

The final Sunday of the Christian year is designated as Christ the King Sunday. The lectionary texts summarize the ministry of the Messianic way of Jesus Christ. Jeremiah 23 envisions a caring leader, a righteous branch, who will surpass David as the true shepherd-king. The Epistle reading (Colossians 1: 11-20) describes the preeminent position Christ holds in the church and all creation. The Gospel lesson, Luke 1:68-79, frames the whole work of redemption as God looks favorably on the people.

The Benedictus (also known as the Canticle of Zachary) is one of three canticles in the opening chapters of Luke. Best known is the Magnificat, the soaring exultation of Mary as she celebrates the coming one; lesser known is Simeon’s Nunc Dimittis, a benediction on his the fulfillment of his life’s yearning—he has encountered the “consolation” of Israel, baby Jesus in the temple. The Benedictus speaks of two figures: the mighty savior and the one who goes before to prepare his ways. The canticle, above all, testifies to God’s faithfulness to the holy covenant of old which overflows with mercy and forgiveness.

In the Benedictine tradition, singing this canticle is a part of Lauds, the celebrative morning prayer. Some scholars say that this practice goes all the way back to Benedict of Nursia, the founder of the Benedictine order. A decade ago I spent a sabbatical at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, MN, and this canticle provided guidance for how to live life according to God’s purposes. Chanting this lyrical summary of the gospel ways of God each morning had a profound and formative impact on me, especially the final couplet.

By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Christ is God’s tender mercy poured out in the world, breaking into all the places that need light and liberation. The goal of this is that we might follow the Prince of Peace and live with hope “into the way of peace.”

Molly T. Marshall

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