Canticles of the Christ: The Benedictus
Midweek of the Second Sunday in Advent
Commemoration of Lucia, Martyr
December 13, 2017
We rightly think of Lent as a penitential season. We prepare, reflect on our sinfulness, repent. As such, it is somber in mood. This is contrasted with the outright joy of Easter. In this penitential and preparatory season of Advent there is restraint in our mood as well. And yet with Advent joy seems to pop up all over the place, especially when we consider the canticles of the Christ—the Song of Mary, the Song of Zechariah, and the Song of Simeon. When we pondered Mary’s song, the Magnificat, we saw how the blessing of Elizabeth upon her and her Child in her womb prompted her to magnify the Lord. This evening we see a similar response of an individual, this time in response to a birth.
That birth was of the baby who had been in the womb of Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth. The individual who broke out in an exultation of praise was Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah. These words of John the Baptist’s father have come to be known as the Benedictus. Not as familiar to many as the Nunc Dimittis we will look at next week and the Magnificat we looked at last week, the Benedictus is a treasure trove of theological goodness.
It has been a long-time custom in the Church to name songs after the first word or words of a song. Thus, the Magnificat is named for the first word in the Greek, magnify, My soul magnifies the Lord. Likewise, the Benedictus comes from the first Greek word Zechariah spoke, which means blessed. We call a blessing also a benediction, which comes from the Latin word for blessing, and thus the name Benedictus.
What brought about this magnificent canticle from the mouth of Zechariah? Not to be overlooked is the nine months Zechariah was unable to speak because of his resistance to the word of God. When the angel told him that his beyond child-bearing age wife was in fact going to bear a child Zechariah refused to believe it. And so the angel struck him mute. While Elizabeth endured nine months of pregnancy in her old age, Zechariah endured nine months of evidence that his unbelief was very real.
So when the time came for Elizabeth to give birth there was joy and celebration. And then there was the naming of the child. The relatives assumed he would be named Zechariah, after dad. But Elizabeth contradicted them, His name will be John. They wondered why since no one of their relatives had that name. In any case, Zechariah would make the decision, so they asked him and he wrote down his decision, being unable to say it. His name is John, he wrote.
At that moment his tongue was loosed and he began blessing God. Everyone was stunned, amazed, and even a little afraid. Strange and wonderful things had been happening. This elderly couple who had been such faithful people of God were living out their twilight years alone. And now they were given the great grace of having a son. And the husband, father, and priest Zechariah was able to speak again. And he was naming his new son a name that broke tradition. In all of this they were saying, What will this child be?
The answer is given in the great canticle of Zechariah, the Benedictus. Luke tells us that little John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah, was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied. Blessed be the Lord God of Israel. Benedictus. Benediction. Blessing. Blessing we normally think of as the word the Lord speaks to us, blessing us with His grace and mercy and peace and His many other gifts. And we will see how the Benedictus is indeed a blessing for us, the people of God. But blessing is also something that we, God’s people, do to God. We bless Him, in the sense of commending Him as worthy and in the sense of praising Him. We worship, praise, and bless God alone. He in turn blesses us with His grace, which is wondrously brought out in these words of Zechariah.
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel. The God who is the God of His people, Israel. There is so much wrapped up here. The Old Testament fills its pages with the God who is the God of His people, creating them, loving them, sustaining them, forgiving them. So Zechariah praises His God, the God of His people. Zechariah captures this in this phrase, because He has visited and made redemption for His people and he has raised up a horn of salvation for us.
In the Old Testament God had promised to visit His people, meaning to come to them. He would send His Messiah, His Savior for His people. He would deliver them from their sins, and that is what Zechariah means by God making redemption for His people. This is what God does, He liberates His people, He delivers them. From their bondage to sin and condemnation, He brings them out. This is the basis of Zechariah’s blessing God.
And then we see how Zechariah says that this is: He spoke through the mouth of His holy prophets from of old. One thing that Luke brings out, perhaps subtly, is how much these people knew their Bible. They were taught the Word of God. And perhaps there is something to be said for being in an oral-tradition culture as opposed to our written-tradition culture. The way the Word of God was handed down from generation to generation was by-and-large orally. And yet they really knew it. In our day we mostly read the Bible individually. And then of course there is the shame that many Christians don’t even do much of that at all. How much do we really know the Word of God? When you look at Mary, and Zechariah, and then next week at Simeon, you see people who speak from the position of knowing God’s Word and giving Him thanks that He fulfills His Word. There simply is no substitute for being in the Lord’s House to hear His Word read and proclaimed and being in the Word ourselves; and not just by ourselves but also with one another. But this is not meant to be a condemnation so much as an encouragement. We have the opportunity, individually and together, to make an effort to be more and more in the Word of God. Great blessings come from it, as we see from the way Zechariah speaks.
He sees how what God had spoken through His prophets was being fulfilled in the very events that were unfolding. His wife being pregnant, his wife’s cousin then being pregnant with the very promised Savior, and now his own son being born, the one who would prepare the way for the Savior. The baby in Mary’s womb would, in the words of Zechariah, raise up a horn of salvation for us, salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. This theme is found often in the Old Testament, and particularly the Psalms. Seeing that this is a promise, and the promises and prophecies of the Old Testament are fulfilled in Christ, we need to see in these enemies and in the hand of all who hate us something much bigger than the people in our lives who have it in for us. Especially in the Psalms where Christ is the ultimate deliver we see that our true enemies, as Jesus said, are not those who can kill the body but the one who can kill body and soul in hell. Namely, Satan. He is our mortal enemy. Those in this world may take your life, but they cannot take your soul. Satan seeks to bring you down to hell with him for eternity. Jesus is the ultimate deliverer. He brings salvation from our enemies, Satan and his demons.
Zechariah continues by recognizing that this work of God is His work of mercy, “to do mercy with our fathers.” Mercy is not truly comprehended until you realize that it is undeserved. When you are given a gift that by rights you shouldn’t have, that is mercy. When you deserve condemnation and you receive approval, you are the recipient of mercy. This is how God acted toward our fathers in the faith. The Old Testament contains story after story of God’s faithfulness to His promises. He time and again acts in mercy toward His people. In other words, He doesn’t bless them because they are such deserving people, but in spite of the fact that they are not. He gives them what they don’t deserve, He acts in mercy toward them.
God’s faithfulness to His promises is what Zechariah means when he says, “and to remember His holy covenant, an oath that He swore to Abraham our father, to give to us, rescued from the hand of our enemies to serve Him without fear in holiness and righteousness in His presence all our days.” Zechariah is acutely aware that what God promised long ago is what He continues to make good on today. That what He did for our fathers He does for us.
And it is only by the Holy Spirit that a father could say about his own son and be right, “And you, child, will be called prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare His ways, to give knowledge of salvation to His people in the forgiveness of their sins, through the merciful compassion of our God, by which the Dawn will visit us from on high, to shine on those sitting in darkness and the shadow of death, to direct our feet in the way of peace.”
When a father experiences the birth of his child, he is humbled that such a gift would come from God to him. With Zechariah he was humbled to know that this gift would be a blessing far beyond his own life. His child would a prophet of the Most High. He would go before the Lord, the child that was to be born in about three months. He would prepare the way of the very God of heaven, for the very God heaven would be a baby who would grow into a man and bring about forgiveness of sins. John would give knowledge of this forgiveness of sins and that comes only through the merciful compassion of our God.
And it is fitting that the Benedictus ends with the assurance that the Dawn will visit us from on high, to shine on those sitting in darkness and the shadow of death, to direct our feet in the way of peace. This is after all what a benediction is, a blessing of God upon us. Zechariah in blessing God has shown us the true blessing, that it is God who blessed us, with His Son. He was born in order to take sin upon Himself in His death. As we near our celebration of the birth of Christ we join with Zechariah in blessing the Lord, the God of Israel. Amen.
Rev. Paul L. Willweber
Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, San Diego, California