Each day during morning prayers I recite the following verses:
In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to shine on those who dwell in darkness
and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace
These words are taken from the first chapter of the Gospel according to Luke (v. 78-79).
The speaker, Zechariah, is the father of John the Baptist. He recites this prophecy eight days after the birth of his son, in response to the question that others asked: “What then will this child become?”
These words of praise are part of a canticle, commonly known as the Benedictus, or the Canticle of Zechariah, and are the first utterances by Zechariah after nine months of silence.
Zechariah, you see, had been rendered mute by the Angel Gabriel during the time of his wife Elizabeth’s pregnancy. She was barren, and both she and Zechariah were getting on in years. So naturally, Zechariah thought it preposterous when Gabriel told him Elizabeth would bear a son and he would be named John.
Like Zechariah, many of us have lived in a state of disbelief over the past eleven months. On May 25, Derek Chauvin, a police officer in Minneapolis, arrested George Floyd, put him in handcuffs, and for more than nine minutes, pinned him to the ground with a knee on his neck, effectively choking him to death, all the while ignoring Floyd’s pleading that he couldn’t breathe. Given recent history, it was inconceivable that Chauvin, or any of the other police officers involved, would face any legal consequences for ending the life of an unarmed black man.
However, unlike Zechariah, people of color and their white allies were anything but silent. Almost immediately, protests erupted nearly over all the country. And law enforcement was quick to respond with such swiftness and severity that, despite calls for peace, the demonstrations often turned violent. It called to mind a quote by Martin Luther King that, “A riot is the language of the unheard.”
But in the barrenness of our hope, one significant act of courage by a young 17-year-old girl, shone a light on the darkness of that day’s horrifying event. Darnella Frazier, a teen with a cell phone, recorded the vile brutality of the officer for all to witness, and he was subsequently arrested and brought to trial.
And on Tuesday evening, April 20, the dawn from on high broke upon us. The people’s cries of desperation were heard. The conviction of Derek Chauvin on three separate counts of murder sent a clear message to police that no longer can they treat people of color with callousness and a lack of accountability for their actions.
Like Zechariah, people of color are praising God this day for this one sign of God’s righteousness, when all hope for justice had been lost.
It is like the fulfillment of a promise made through the holy prophets of old that God would “save us from our enemies, from the hands of all who hate us.”
So as we have encountered the divine in the midst of the despair that seems to enclose our historical reality, may we, like Zechariah, be filled with the Holy Spirit, so that we may look toward a future filled with hope
May we, like John, grow and become strong in that Spirit, and breathe deeply the air of a future full of a faith that assures us that, even in the face of oppression and suffering, we are always surrounded by God’s abiding presence, and embraced by God’s steadfast love.