The Word in the Wings

The Word in the Wings  > From the study: God’s rock-candy Advent promises

From the study: God's rock-candy Advent promises

By: KAYA PRASAD

Metaphors and symbols characterize Christian practice throughout the year, but as we prepare to celebrate Christmas with trees, lights and giving of gifts, the season of Advent is particularly rich with tangible signs that creative people have developed over the centuries to illustrate the mystery of God’s relationship to humanity through incarnation in Jesus. The candy cane is one of these signs, a simple object carefully designed to instruct people through the physical senses of touch, taste and sight about the things God has accomplished through the events of Christmas.

According to popular legend, candy canes are made of hard rock candy as a symbol of the surety of God’s promises. In Luke 1:67-79 Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, praises God’s faithfulness and describes the significance of God’s activity in his time in terms of the fulfillment of age-old covenant promises to the people of Israel.

67 And Zechariah his father was filled with a holy breath, and he prophesied, saying:

68 Blessed is the Lord God of Israel, 

     because he looked after and redeemed his people.

The purpose of biblical prophecy is to persuade God’s people to follow God’s will (Sweeney 233). Zechariah’s prophetic utterance following the miraculous birth of his son John begins with a word of blessing on God for the reason that God has attended to the people of Israel. “Redeem” is an important content word in verse 68 because it refers to deliverance from bondage, recalling Israel’s historical memory of being liberated from slavery in Egypt so they could live under Yahweh’s law. For most of the years since their liberation from Egypt, Israel has lived under the rule of one unjust ruler or another, always longing for the truly good reign of God as their sovereign. When Zechariah praises God for redeeming Israel, he proclaims confidence in God’s faithfulness to uphold the same kind of promise God made to the people in their earliest days as a nation despite the fluctuations over time in their degree of political liberty.

69 And he raised up a horn of salvation for us,

     his child in the house of David,

70 just as he said through the mouth of his holy prophets from the ages:

The phrase “just as he said” points explicitly to the congruence between words God spoke in the past and events God is accomplishing in the present. Zechariah is centuries removed from prophets like Isaiah, yet he holds onto hope that the savior presaged by John’s birth is a Davidic king such as Isaiah describes when he says,

Isaiah 9:3 Because the yoke they bore and the staff they shouldered–

the oppressor’s rod upon them–

   you shattered as in the day of Midyan…

5 Because a baby is born for us, a son is given for us…

6 For his government’s increase and for peace without end,

upon David’s throne and over his kingdom,

to establish and sustain it

with justice and righteousness,

   from now until forever,

the zeal of Yahweh of hosts will do this.

In Isaiah’s time Israel is being overtaken by invading empires, but the prophet anticipates that Yahweh will bring deliverance from these oppressors by restoring a king “upon David’s throne” (Isaiah 9:6). Zechariah asserts that the salvation God raises up in the days when Israel lives under Roman rule is indeed someone “in the house of David” (Luke 1:69), a human who will partner with God to restore a kingdom of “justice and righteousness” (Isaiah 9:6). Zechariah has been told that his son will go before the Lord to prepare people for him (Luke 1:17), and Mary has been told that she will bear a son to sit on David’s throne (Luke 1:32). Isaiah speaks of a Davidic king as “part of a larger deliverance that God will effect for his people” (Goswell 105). Zechariah’s prophecy synthesizes the promises being immediately realized with Isaiah’s broader vision to express his trust that God is fulfilling this age-old covenant to be the true sovereign of God’s people. The fulness of this redemption includes:

Luke 1:71 salvation from our enemies and from the hands of all who hate us,

72 to do mercy with our ancestors

    and to commemorate his holy covenant,

73 an oath which he made to Abraham our ancestor 

     to grant us 

74 deliverance, unafraid, from our enemies’ hands 

     to worship him 

75 in devotion and righteousness

     before him all our days.

These verses include four purpose clauses that explain why God is now bringing salvation for the people of Israel. The first two purpose clauses (Luke 1:72) explain that God is delivering Israel for the sake of their ancestors to show that God has not forgotten promises, even those made generations ago. Luke 1:73-75 specify the nature of God’s “holy covenant” as the promises made as long ago as Abraham for the sake of liberation from captivity and fear, which is in turn for the sake of worshipping Yahweh–not only in the days of Israel’s ancestors, but “all our days,” even after renewed experiences of exile and bondage. Just as God delivers Israel from slavery in Egypt in order to worship God in the wilderness, the ongoing fulfillment of God’s covenant promise as realized in the events of Zechariah’s days is for the sake of Israel’s restored relationship with Yahweh their God.

Zechariah then turns to address the newborn John to speak of this child’s role in God’s present intervention for salvation:

76 But you, child, will be called Prophet of the Most High, 

     for you will walk ahead before the Lord 

          to prepare his way

77 to grant knowledge of salvation to his people when he forgives their sins

78 because of our God’s heartfelt mercy,

     by which a dawn from a height will visit us

79 to illuminate those in darkness and those dwelling in death’s darkness,

     to guide our feet in the way of peace.

This section also includes four purpose clauses. The first two (Luke 1:76-77) explain why John “will walk ahead before the Lord:” so people will be ready to receive the Lord, having the knowledge to understand what they will experience when they encounter Jesus. John’s purpose is to mediate people’s relationships with Jesus, who embodies the salvation that fulfills God’s age-old promise to Israel. Not only is God fulfilling that promise of salvation through Jesus, but God is also acting relationally to involve people deeply in the process of its fulfillment.

The last two purpose clauses (Luke 1:79) summarize the reason for all that is happening to manifest God’s mercy. God’s intention in showing mercy is to dispel the darkness of death–to bring life instead of death, to bring understanding and hope instead of despair. Zechariah’s closing line looks into the future: the light gives answer to ancient promises and also guides God’s people in how to continue in the way of life that instantiates those promises, which is to seek peaceful flourishing and wholeness instead of in violent conflict and division.

The hard rock candy of a candy cane can remind us during Advent to read this passage with an eye toward God’s faithfulness in fulfilling age-old promises through Jesus’s birth and life. Zechariah’s prophecy also expands on the notion of God’s faithfulness by reiterating the purpose of God’s promises and their fulfillment, which is to restore humanity’s relationships of trust toward God and goodness and generosity toward one another, since we have received salvation through God’s own generous mercy.

***

Scripture quotations in this post are my own translation.

You can read more about the legend of the candy cane here: The symbolism of candy canes begins with a shepherd’s crook

Other secondary references:

“The Latter Prophets and prophecy,” by Marvin A. Sweeney, in The Cambridge Companion to The Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, edited by Stephen B. Chapman and Marvin A. Sweeney (Cambridge University Press 2016).

“The Shape of Messianism in Isaiah 9,” by Greg Goswell, in Westminster Theological Journal (2015).

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