John’s father 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.’
On Tuesday, our reading was Mary’s great song of praise, The Magnificat. Those marvellous words are said or sung at Evening Prayer (or Evensong) every day of the year. Today’s reading, Zechariah’s song of praise, is also said or sung every day. The Benedictus is the other anthem of praise and hope that is recited daily, but this time at Morning Prayer (or Matins).
To understand how this song of praise relates to us, we need to begin by putting it into the context of the gospel narrative. For nine months Zechariah was silent, his power of speech taken from him by God’s messenger. Even when his son was born Zechariah was forced to remain silent. For him there could be no joyous conversation or celebratory song. Instead, his enforced silence went on.
Those nine months of silence must have dragged terribly for Zechariah. His priestly duties would have had to be curtailed and any social interaction would have been brought to an abrupt halt. All that Zechariah could have done during those days was to study, meditate and pray.
In accordance with Jewish law and tradition, eight days after his birth, Zechariah and Elizabeth presented their miraculous son in the synagogue for circumcision and naming. It was only at this point, as Zechariah publicly declared his obedience to God, that the boy’s father regained the power of speech. And with that newly restored power of speech, Zechariah praised God and uttered these great words of prophecy.
The Benedictus comprises two parts. The first is a song of thanksgiving for the realization of the Messianic hopes of the Jewish nation. After centuries of waiting a descendant of the great King David was coming to bring deliverance, in fulfilment of God’s promise. The second part of the Benedictus is an address from the father, Zechariah, to his son, John. This address makes clear John’s destiny to be the great prophet who will be the herald of the long-awaited Messiah, God’s Anointed One, Jesus Christ.
Both the Benedictus and the Magnificat are essential precursors of the coming of Jesus into this world. Both great songs of praise have been used by the Church for centuries as reminders of God’s faithfulness to humanity. Both texts show us the importance of setting aside human wisdom in order that we might follow the divine wisdom of God’s redemptive plan.
As the time to celebrate Christ’s Incarnation draws near, let us pray for the strength to resist the negative pressures of our daily existence in order that, through prayer and thanksgiving, we might welcome the Christ-child as never before.