The Canticles (Introduction and the Benedictus)
A unique feature of the infancy narrative of Luke’s Gospel is the inclusion of three canticles, or songs, that have subsequently become a beloved part of Christian hymnody. The Benedictus (the Song of Zechariah), Magnificat (The Song of Mary), and Nunc Dimittis (The Song of Simeon), the traditional names ascribed to them based on their open lines in the latin text, are sung in liturgical churches as part of the Daily Office liturgy. In our own Anglican tradition, the Benedictus is the culminating canticle in Mattins (Morning Prayer), the Magnificat is the first canticle of Evensong (Evening Prayer) and the Nunc is the final canticle of Evensong. The Nunc is also used in Compline (Night Prayer) and often sung at the conclusion of funerals.
Much has been written as to whether Luke composed these canticles or whether he drew on traditional material and spliced them into his birth narratives of John and Jesus. We have no way of knowing if the individuals in this story (Zechariah, Mary and Simeon, respectively) actually composed or sung these words. Were they amongst the first Christian hymns, or were they well known Jewish songs that took on new meaning in the light of the coming of Jesus? Did Luke take traditional material and place it on the lips of these three individuals, or did he write the hymns himself? We can really only theorize about any of these conclusions. What is clear is that each of the hymns serve to advance the themes of the larger narrative and that each of the hymns contain elements that resonate with the themes of the Gospel of Luke. Again, did Luke choose them because they reflected his message or did he create them to underscore his message? We cannot know for sure, and I do not think it really matters, for what is important is the message.
This week, we will be discussing “The Benedictus” (Luke 1:68-79)
When old Zechariah (the father of John the Baptist) learned that his aged wife Elizabeth was to give birth, he had some doubts. Because of these doubts he was struck dumb until his wife gave birth. After the birth, Zechariah regained his voice and named the child John and then with his restored voice Luke tells us that Zechariah “was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:
‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty saviour for us
in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.’ "
The first thing we notice is that the hymn opens with a blessing of God, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,” this is a typical form of Jewish thanksgiving prayer and still exists to this day in the Jewish liturgy (for example, The Eighteen Benedictions, and see also the parallels in our own tradition, like the Eucharistic prayer, itself). The story of Jesus is once again firmly rooted in Jewish salvation-history through the genre of Jewish thanksgiving prayer.
We also note that Luke characterizes these words a “prophecy.” Implicit in this statement is the role of the Spirit of God, who gives voice to the once-mute Zechariah. The first words he offers up are words of divine revelation, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit --words of prophecy.
Although this hymn never uses the word “messiah”, but rather the term saviour (Greek “soter” which was often applied to invading kings in the Greek world), it is clearly a messianic prophecy because of the reference to a saviour coming from the House of David. This, he adds, is the fulfillment of former prophecies spoken by the prophets of old. To this is added the theme of God’s faithfulness in that God has not abandoned the covenant he made with his people, and yet, at the same time something new is happening, the covenant is coming to fulfillment. The consequence of this fulfillment will be rescue from our foes, perfect service of God, and a life of holiness without fear.
The focus then shifts to “the child who will be called prophet of the most high,” namely, John the Baptist. If this hymn circulated prior to early Christianity in early Judaism, it has certainly been appropriated in the context to refer to John as the one who “goes before the Lord to prepare his way.” This is a clear reference to the prophecy in Isaiah 40, “the voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord!” Thus, the hymn proclaims that in the birth of the child John, the old prophecies are coming to fulfillment and that we are at a new and unique point in history.
Finally, the hymn culminates with the role of John, which is to announce the salvation which comes from the Lord through the forgiveness of sins (this is why in 3:3 John is later characterized as baptizing for the forgiveness of sins). The hymn also praises the mercy and tenderness of God in offering this salvation (in contrast to his implicit wrath and condemnation of the unrighteous as is often found in ancient Jewish messianic thought). Then follows the proclamation, “The dawn from on high shall break upon us,” which may be a reference to the “Sun of Righteousness” with healing in his wings found in Malachi 4:2 (remember that “healing” and “salvation” are the same Greek word!). That light, that new dawn, gives light “to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. This is likely a reference to the “people who walked in darkness” in Isaiah 9 (and possibly even a reference to the 23rd Psalm). This is taken to be the Jewish nation under oppression, but one might ask if it might also refer in this context to the gentiles. The Jewish prophetic literature often forsees a time when the gentiles will be gathered into the kingdom of God, consider for example Isaiah 60 in which, “the gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brighteness of thy rising.” I am convinced that we see an allusion here to this text as well.
Importantly, not only does this hymn expound all of these key themes, it functions in the narrative as a personal a personal shift from non-believing to believing for Zechariah. Even though he was a holy priest, he still required a conversion. He needed to have his eyes opened to what God was doing and to realize the importance of this moment in salvation history. The hymn is his profession of belief that the culmination of the prophecies of old is about to take place.
Next: Week - The Magnifcat
c. 2009 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves