Friday, October 23, 2009

The Gospel of Luke Challenge - Part 3

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

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Gospel of Luke Challenge - Part 2

The Infancy Narratives of John the Baptist and Jesus.

There is much that can be said about the infancy narratives of John the Baptist and Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. The Lukan infancy narrative is quite different from the only other canonical account, the one found in Matthew’s Gospel. As I have already indicated, Luke includes an account of the birth not only of Jesus, but also of John the Baptist. In both Matthew and Luke’s accounts, there is a touching of heaven and earth in the various angelic visitations, but whereas Matthew’s angels appear only in dreams (announcing to Joseph not only the birth of Jesus but the need to flee into Egypt, and later to return to Judea; and also the warning to the wise men in a dream to return home by another road), in Luke’s Gospel the angels appear directly to individuals in the narrative (to Zechariah, to Mary, and to “shepherds abiding in the fields”). In Matthew’s Gospel the events focus around Joseph, Herod and the Magi (likely played out over the period of a couple of years), with Mary as a much more marginal figure, while in Luke’s Gospel Mary is central to the entire narrative as is her relationship with Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. In Luke we see no mention of foreign wise men or magi, but rather traditional figures rooted solidly in the Jewish religious milieu of the day, namely Zechariah the priest, Simeon the wise holy man, and Anna the prophetess. Both narratives firmly root the birth of Jesus in historical, but quite different moments. For Matthew, the birth occurs in the context of the rule of Herod the Great and indeed, Herod is a key player in the narrative (and is behind the slaughter of the innocents, which is absent in Luke), while in Luke, the birth occurs in the context of a Roman census in the time that “Quirinius was governor of Syria.” Furthermore, Luke’s narrative contains a series of canticles or songs that are completely absent from Matthew’s version. And while both texts include a genealogy of Jesus, Matthew uses his to preface his entire narrative, while Luke employs an entirely different genealogical lineage and places it after the infancy narrative as a sort of preface to Jesus’ adult ministry.

This short enumeration of some of the key differences reminds us how difficult a task it is to conflate the two accounts, as Christmas pageants, cantatas and crèches have tried to do for centuries. Each narrative has its own integrity and seeks to underscore key themes in each gospel. I have named some of the key differences; there are many others of a smaller but equally important nature. The question for us, though, is what do these differences tell us about Luke’s story of Jesus? We have not the time to examine each of these particular differences, but let us take a closer look at Luke’s decision to include the birth of John the Baptist into his infancy narrative.

Luke is at once firmly rooting his story in the Jewish tradition from which it emerged and at the same time eager to demonstrate that something very unique has occurred in the birth of Jesus. By incorporating the birth of John the Baptist into the narrative Luke is able to introduce a character that operates clearly in the tradition of the prophets of old. His birth is announced in the same way that the births of Isaac and Ishmael are announced in Genesis. And the birth of Jesus, too, is announced in this way, but there are some significant differences. While the angel certainly announces the greatness and the righteousness of John to Zechariah, and while he proclaims that the Spirit will indeed lead John, John is to be understood as an Elijah-figure. He is analogous to one of the old-time prophets who proclaims the coming of the Lord and leads people to God. On the other hand, the angel proclaims that Jesus will “be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” There is a clear distinction in roles here. Jesus is himself a son of God who will sit on the throne of David. This is clear messianic language. Thus, where John announces God’s coming as a prophet (and prepares people for it), Jesus inaugurates God’s never-ending reign, the restoration of Israel, as the Davidic messiah.

Both births are miraculous, one to an older barren woman (as per Sarah in Genesis), and one to a younger woman, a virgin. Neither should be having children, but both do, and both scandalous pregnancies are a gift from God, thus introducing a key Lucan theme, namely, that God turns the expected order on its head. This is a theme we shall return to in future installments and a theme we shall see again and again: Go turns the scandalous into a means of his grace. We might also wonder if the older woman represents life new life and hope being birthed from the age-old religion, and the younger woman is a metaphor for the unending fertility of God’s love. While the ages of the women stand in contrast to each other, we must remember that Mary seeks out Elizabeth for wisdom, support, nurturing and guidance. Their lives and stories are inseparably woven together, as will be the lives of their children. Their kinship is divine and their friendship holy. Perhaps their holy partnership has something to say to modern Jewish-Christian interfaith dialogue.

Both births are announced by angels under the Old Testament pattern to which I alluded earlier in the angelic announcements of the births of Isaac and Ishmael, namely, 1) the appearance of an angel, 2) fear on the part of the one to whom the angel is appearing, 3) the message (often with the admonition not to fear), 4) the objection of the hearer, and 5) a sign to verify the announcement (note also that the angelic visitation to the shepherds follows this pattern). However, an important difference exists between the announcement to Zechariah and the announcement to Mary. Zechariah’s unbelief is punished when his is struck dumb, while Mary’s unbelief turns from “How can this be?” to “Here I am, Lord,” the same words of young Samuel at his call! It should also be noted that again we see here the tendency in the Lukan narrative to turn power on its head – Zechariah, a priest of the establishment is struck dumb, while the vulnerable Mary is given voice. Perhaps here is some sense of the age-old conflict between the skepticism of age experience as opposed to the innocent enthusiasm of youth. Perhaps there is a lesson for today’s Chruch in Zechariah’s cautious institutional response and Mary’s vulnerable but enthusiastic, “yes.”

It is also worth noting that the Holy Spirit figures prominently in both facets of this story. In Luke’s storytelling, mention of the Spirit is often accompanied by the word “power.” Thus, John will announce the coming of the Lord, “with the spirit and power of Elijah” (This might be read simply as “Elijah’s spirit,” but typically prophets are seen as operating under the Spirit of God). For Mary, it is “the Holy Spirit (that) will come upon her and the power of the Most high will overshadow her.” Then, when Elizabeth sees Mary come to greet her, her child leaps in her womb and Elizabeth becomes filled with the Holy Spirit. When Zechariah’s voice finally returns, the Holy Spirit to moves him to song as he blesses God. When John is born “he grew and became strong in spirit.” Later as Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the Temple, they meet the wise man Simeon and we are told that “the Holy Spirit rested on him,” and further, “that guided by the Spirit,” Simeon had come into the Temple. Thus, the events of the narrative are linked carefully together by references to the Spirit of God who actually seems to be guiding the narrative as a piece of sacred history.

In all of these details we see profound continuity in the infancy narrative with the history of the people of Israel, and yet, through the power of the Holy Spirit an in the announcement of angelic messengers, we learn that God is doing a new thing. In the midst of a people expecting God to act in history there are many surprises in store.

Next week: More expectation and surprise as we look at the canticles of the Infancy Narrative.

c. 2009 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

A Letter to the Premier of Ontario

On Wednesday, our bishop, The Rt. Rev. Colin Johnson, took out a full-page ad in the Toronto Star asking Anglicans to write to the Premier of Ontario, Dalton McGuinty, urging the provincial government to immediately implement a $100.00 Healthy Food Supplement for those in our neighbourhoods who live on social assistance. I would encourage readers of this blog to read Bishop Johnson's words and consider sending a letter to the premier. The following is the text of my own letter to the premier:

Dear Premier McGuinty:

I write as a priest of the Anglican Church of Canada in the Diocese of Toronto to add my voice the growing number of Anglicans (and others) who are calling upon the provincial government to immediately implement a $100.00 healthy food supplement to assist low income individuals and families that live amongst us. As a priest in one of the GTA's wealthiest neighbourhoods, I know that poverty can so easily remain hidden. In the midst of great affluence poverty can be a source of extreme shame and isolation. The heart of the Christian Gospel is the proclamation of Good News to the poor. I am proud to say that our parish community continues to support local food bank initiatives as one way of attempting to live out this calling.

Your government has, in the past, demonstrated itself be a government concerned with dignity and justice for all Ontarians. I do hope that your government will embrace this opportunity to continue to proclaim good news to the poor in word and deed, that during this Thanksgiving season we will indeed have much cause to give thanks to God.

I remain,
Yours in Christ,

The Rev. Daniel F. Graves (
Associate Priest, Holy Trinity Anglican Church,
140 Brooke Street, Thornhill, ON L4J 1Y9
tel: (905) 889-5931, ext. 23; email: