Herod loomed large as the visible representative of Roman authority in Judea. Known for his cruelty to citizens and family alike, for his massive building campaigns to bring honor to Caesar and attention to himself, and for the creation of a surveillance state – he also threw the priesthood into precarity to serve his political agenda.
Zechariah lived in this fray. He was an ordinary priest, living outside of Jerusalem in a small village. Priests like him received small stipends, but surviving the uneven economy required them to supplement their income. When Zechariah was not instructing people in the ways of the Torah he worked alongside them harvesting olives, or at the wine press, or tending the groves of fruit trees in the terraced hills. A son would have been such a help at times like this, he must have mused more than once. But Elizabeth’s barrenness meant the struggle of provision fell on his aging shoulders alone.
And Herod made things more tenuous for Zechariah and his fellow priests amid that first advent. He moved around elite priests at his whim to serve his own purposes, which meant movement down the line for ordinary clerics like him. He never knew when he would be demoted or his stipend delayed or decreased. The instability of his priestly position meant he shared the economic duress of his neighbors.
He lived at the hinge between the elite priesthood in Jerusalem and the everyday Jew. He saw the excess of one and the need of the other. He knew intimately the stories of his neighbors, shared under the generous canopy of the fig trees as they sipped tea between their hours of labor in the fields and on the threshing floors. A bad harvest, sons migrating north looking for work, and the forfeiture of family land – he heard it all and took it to heart, as a community elder and good priest.
There is little doubt that the daily concerns carried by Zechariah’s neighbors shaped his prayers. When he prayed at home or in the Temple, he saw their faces. High priests might have had the luxury of disconnection from the anxieties of the people, but not an ordinary priest. So Zechariah did not have only or primarily a personal piety, but a faithful practice that embraced his neighbors.
Imagine if we prayed like Zechariah, allowing the injustices that impinge on our neighbors to be central as we pray for their relief. We could pray for the end to systemic oppression — the dynamics that keep people without potable water, without access to ample food, or safe streets for their children. We might pray about economics structures that create a permanent poverty class, contra the jubilee aspirations of the prophets. We certainly could pray for occupations to end and for refugees to return home and know repatriation and reunion. We could pray for all threats so all could live in God’s peace.
The invitation to embody God’s peace campaign, in the Middle East or middle America, ought to reorient our advent prayers. Our petitions could be less about our individualistic concerns and center on the needs of our neighbors. This Advent we could pray with our neighbors, near and far, in mind. We can listen to the hardship our neighbors labor under and allow those very things to inform our prayers for the season.
The angel came to the Temple, but not to a high priest.
God’s messenger spoke to an ordinary priest who was
intimately acquainted with the pain of the region.
The seeds for God’s peace are in lowly places,
among those who struggle and pray for tangible relief.
May this shape our prayers this Advent.
Author Kelley Nikondeha is a practical theologian hungry for the New City. She is the co-director and chief storyteller for Communities of Hope, a community development enterprise in Burundi. Kelley is the theologian in residence for SheLoves Magazine. Her latest book is “The First Advent in Palestine: Reversals, Resistance, and the Ongoing Complexity of Hope”. Find out more about Kelley’s work on her website: https://kelleynikondeha.com/.
CMEP’s first Advent Devotional Book: In addition to our usual Advent Devotionals, CMEP is pleased to have partnered with author Kelley Nikondeha to create a devotional book entitled “The First Advent: Embodying God’s Peace Plan” that is available for purchase for you or your church group. This devotional book contains devotionals for each Sunday of Advent, including Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, as well as Alternative Advent Practices written by members of CMEP’s staff. Click here to purchase
CMEP is very thankful for those writers who contribute Spiritual Resources. However, CMEP does not necessarily agree with all the positions of our writers, and they do not speak on CMEP’s behalf.