Read Luke 1:67–79.

In my branch of the church, we pray the words of the song of Zechariah each day during the service of Morning Prayer. As the new day begins, we say or sing: “The sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (vv. 78–79, ESV).

Anyone who has taken the trouble to get up early and climb a hill or tower to watch the burning cusp of the sun swell into a cheering, blazing ball on the horizon will know how easy it is to treat a sunrise as a metaphor for hope. The rising sun says, “Whatever happened yesterday, here is a day of new possibilities. There is life beyond darkness and peace beyond strife.”

Maybe the most famous use of the metaphor comes from the Old Testament prophet Malachi, who pictures the sun as a peaceable bird whose flight path showers mercy on those who look up to see it. In Eugene Peterson’s memorable paraphrase, Malachi 4:2 reads, “For you, sunrise! The sun of righteousness will dawn on those who honor my name, healing radiating from its wings” (MSG).

What we hope for when we say these words morning after morning is that the sun’s warm light would simply remind us of God’s light that shines in our hearts with fresh grace for the day ahead (2 Cor. 4:6).

One of the things that’s always a bit jarring to me, though, when I pray the song of Zechariah is that the somewhat gauzy, universally recognizable symbol of the rising sun sits side by side with a stubbornly concrete reference to a specific child from history: the cousin of Jesus, the one we know as John the Baptist. “You, my child,” sings Zechariah, breaking away from his grandiose imagery to focus on one particular human being, “will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him” (Luke 1:76).

What this means for my prayer life, I’ve come to think, is that all the beautiful but somewhat underdetermined talk about divine light, health, peace, and so on comes into sharp focus in the events surrounding one particular first-century Israelite prophet who would one day, pointing away from himself, declare about Jesus: “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). The sun is meant to remind us of hope, yes—but, particularly, the hope of the Son himself.

Wesley Hill is a priest serving at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and an associate professor of New Testament at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.

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