Benedictus

Luke, Chapter 1, verses 67-79

The Gospel of Luke, which will provide most of our Sunday readings over this new year, is my favourite Gospel.  You will be familiar with its many emphases: compassion and justice; joy and prayer; healing and forgiveness; inclusion and reconciliation; God’s concern for the poor; the role of women; the fact that God makes his way known not through the religious establishment but through ordinary people of faith.   Many of those ideas are in the three hymns of praise we will be looking at today, including this first one – the Benedictus.

At first Zechariah is slow to understand what’s happening. Elizabeth, like Mary, is much more on the ball.  But when he does get it, he rejoices over the coming Saviour.  In this great hymn of praise he celebrates the dawning of a new age, but as the fulfilment of what God has promised in the past, and he sees his son, John, as the pivotal figure between the old covenant and the new.

So what is the relationship between the old and the new, and more particularly between Law and Grace?   That’s a question for this season of Advent with its emphasis on Judgement, but also the beginning of the journey towards Christmas and the Incarnation.  It’s also a question which I find myself asking in my role at Gray’s Inn, preaching to judges and barristers.

In his 1862 novel, Les Miserables, now best known as a West End Musical, Victor Hugo draws two main characters.   Jean Valjean (Val-jean) has been sentenced to five years in prison for stealing bread to feed his sister’s children, but has escaped and is on the run.   He is branded as an outcast and his identity papers have been confiscated.   His protagonist, his nemesis, is Inspector Javert, a dedicated and capable police officer, someone who occupies a place of honour in society.  For nineteen years he pursues his quarry.

During this time Valjean steals valuable silverware from the house of a bishop.  (Oh for the days when bishops had silverware!)  But instead of turning him in, the bishop tells the police that he has given the treasure to Valjean.  From this encounter onwards Valjean becomes a changed man, repentant, honourable, dignified.  He is kind to those he meets.  He becomes a devoted substitute father to a girl who loses her mother, and a benefactor to those in need. Though a known criminal, he grows morally to represent the best traits of humanity.

In literature Javert and Valjean have become almost archetypes of Law and Grace, and of the conflict between them, one against the other.  But it may not be that easy.

A similar over-simplification may be found in the way that some people describe the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. They paint a picture of the Old Covenant as if it’s only about Law, about a God whose uncompromising demands must be met or else…, culminating in this Advent figure of John the Baptist, proclaiming that God is coming and urging the people to repent before it’s too late.

But that is to ignore so much else that the Old Testament tells us about God
– the Creator God who shares his handiwork and creative power with humanity
– the God who offers a Covenant based on mutual friendship rather than a vassal treaty
– a God who seeks out his people, and even suffers with them, that they might return to him.

In the same way people can draw a picture of the New Testament which distorts what we learn there about how God does actually deal with a world which has gone so wrong. Because although the Christian Gospel is essentially about Grace – the Lucan themes of Love in action, of Forgiveness and Restoration – that does not mean that Law ceases to matter.

St Paul, especially in Romans and Galatians, is clear that the Law was, at least originally, an act of Grace: God gave the Law as a means whereby the people could rediscover how they ought to live, individually and as a society, and so put aside the very human traits and temptations which get in the way.   The problem of course was that the Law by itself could not help them to do it.   Indeed often it only heaped on the guilt.  Human failing needed something more.

And that’s where we come to Grace.  The Christian Gospel says that what Law on its own could not achieve, God did himself.  According to the Law the right thing for God to have done was the process of Judgement which would have seen the destruction of humanity.   But God chose another way.   He “got personal”.  He chose instead to send his Son, to become one of us, to suffer with us and for us.  In the end he chose Grace over Law.  So “through the tender mercy of our God” there is “light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death”, there is hope for those who desperately seek to walk in “the way of peace”.

Preaching to judges and barristers I sometimes tell them that…  the problem with you people is that you’re far too fond of dressing up and arguing.  Unlike, of course, those of us in the church!    But what is the role of grace in the law today?

First of course we must ensure that the Law is not being used to shore up an unjust society.  Remember that Valjean started his flight from the Law when he was imprisoned for stealing bread for his sister’s children.  It’s not enough for Starbucks, Google and Amazon to excuse their failure to pay tax with “We did nothing illegal”.  Morality must be about more than obeying the law, especially when that law is inadequate.

Then there are those people who have felt the brunt of the law and now sit in the darkness of prison.   You may well have some from your own parish.  Why is it that we British put so many people in prison, think we can forget all about them, and then seem surprised that when they’re let out they return to a life of crime?  

The issue of prisoners being able to vote needs to be about much more than pacifying the European Court.  When I was in Portsmouth I did stand-by duty as a prison chaplain.   My worst Christmas Day was when I went home for the family lunch, having spent the morning in the city’s Kingston Prison.   And one of my relatives said “I don’t know why you bother with such people”.  I wanted to shout back: what do you think we’re celebrating today?

And then there is the growing interest in Restorative Justice, which is surely about Grace might be able to transcend Law.  Not out of some bleeding-hearts liberalism, belittling what someone has been done to society, and especially what they’ve done to the victim.  But beginning with the fact that both the victim and the perpetrator are people who need the chance to heal the past and build something better.  It isn’t easy: as they found in South Africa, you can’t have Reconciliation without first confronting the Truth, but you can move on if Law alone is not the last word.

In the Benedictus Luke offers us freedom.  Freedom from those who hate us.  Freedom from fear.  Freedom from the darkness which threatens to engulf us, and our world.

The Gospel is always deeply personal and frighteningly political. The good news is you need no longer live in the darkness which the Law, when left to itself, will bring.  Instead, rejoice in the light and even in the challenges that come with it.