I am a person inspired by tradition. My original academic training was all about tradition – first I studied medieval history and then ancient history and then archaeology. I worked as a librarian, preserving the written works and the documents that make up our cultural tradition. I studied classical music and worked as a recitalist and an opera singer: again, an art dependent on and preserving of tradition (with apologies to my friends who are living composers). And now what do I do? I attend seminary, studying and learning about what many consider to be the most tradition-bound subject of all — church, and yes, even GOD.
Tradition, continuity with that tradition — these words to me do not mean looking backwards. These words mean embracing what has been and what is so that I can stand on that foundation and work towards what will be.
Today’s reading is all about what has been and what will be. Luke 1:5-20 is one of those stories in the Bible that we all know well, perhaps so well that we have a hard time really thinking about its meaning (this passage is kind of long, so follow the link if you want to read the full text). The story of Zechariah and Elisabeth, the angel Gabriel foretelling the birth and life of John the Baptist, and Zechariah’s disbelief and its consequences — this is familiar to many from Sunday school.
The Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of Matthew contain what are called “the infancy narratives”, and Luke brings us the best parts of the Christmas story, the pretty parts — including this story about Zechariah and Elisabeth, and the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-28), and the great stories of the Jesus as a child.
We know the author of this text simply as “Luke”. But we do not know anything about the author except what we can glean from analyzing the text; we cannot even be certain when the text was written.
There are things we can surmise, however. The author most likely was educated in Greek literature and philosophy, and he had good knowledge of the Greek-language version of the Old Testament, known as the Septuagint. Our writer adapted the Greek device of the prologue as his introduction (Luke 1:1-4) and he shifted his style to match that of the Septuagint beginning in verse 5. He even quotes (well, steals, since he does not attribute) from the prophet Malachi in 1:17 (Malachi 4:5-6).
Why? Well, I can’t be certain but I think that he made that shift in style because he wanted us to understand the story that he was about to tell within the context of the tradition from which it grew. The story of Zechariah and Elizabeth parallels that of Abraham and Sarah (Gen. 18) and that of Hannah and Elkanah (I Sam 1 & 2): a loving couple, long past their reproducing years, childless, but still devoted to their God. Both Zechariah and Sara questioned the news (Gen. 18:11 and Luke 1:18). In all three stories, the impossible happens and a son is born; in all three stories, the son grows to manhood and plays a pivotal role in the history of faith.
I think you can see the magic of Luke’s story here. It isn’t just that we are conditioned to feel the anticipation of the coming of Christ in the foretelling of his cousin’s birth; it is that Luke, the story teller, carefully tells us this most exciting news of new things to come while placing it gently but firmly in the context of the miracles we already have heard and accept. And he did that not just for us; he did it for those around him that knew the old traditions well but wanted to reach out and embrace the exciting changes around them, and in them.
It is a lot like where we stand today as people of faith. We have a great story to tell — both what has come before and what can come after. But we have the same dilemma as Luke. Do we adopt the old style, the old language to tell the new tale, or do we use new methods to tell the old story and hope that people will stay interested long enough to hear the possibilities ahead?
Advent is about waiting, yes, but what do you do while you wait? You tell the story. You tell it over and over. You tell it so that you will remember it in your bones. You tell it so that others will hear. You tell it so that people will listen carefully.
The question is how to tell it…I don’t know — but I would be interested to know what you think.