Singing through Advent, Part Three: Benedictus

Darkness, death, and peace. Darkness and death are the perennial fears of human beings from time immemorial. Likewise, peace is our perennial hope and desire. The first two must be vanquished in order to experience the third.

Detail from "Zechariah in the Temple" (17th century) by Jan Lievens (WikiArt.org)

In this installment, we shall consider the second of Luke’s canticles, the Benedictus. However, like St. Luke himself, we must set the stage. Luke, a very precise historian, informs us of the exact time and place of the events we are about to read,1 in the Temple during the reign of King Herod, when the priest Zechariah – from the family of Abijah – was on duty. Further, not only was Zechariah a priest but his wife Elizabeth likewise came from a priestly family.2

We learn that the two spouses were “righteous,”3 observing all the precepts of the Law. In spite of that, they were childless, then commonly seen as divine disfavor for infidelity to the Law. St. John Chrysostom offers an Old Testament context and a New Testament application: “Not only Elisabeth, but the wives of the Patriarchs also, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, were barren, which was counted a disgrace among the ancients. Not that their barrenness was the effect of sin, since all were just and virtuous, but ordained rather for our benefit, that when you saw a virgin giving birth to the Lord, you might not be faithless, or perplexing your mind with respect to the womb of the barren.” Such a misfortune, then, is not always a punishment: In the case of the man born blind in John’s Gospel, we are informed by Our Lord that: “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him” (Jn 9:3). We must conclude that this was also the case here. Indeed, John comes from “good stock.”

Zechariah’s turn at liturgical responsibilities occurs by lot. To the modern ear, this may sound somewhat haphazard. In the biblical mindset, it is anything but that. St. Bede points out that the priests of the line of Abijah obtained the “eighth lot” in the priestly roster; he sees significance in this: “But it was not without meaning that the first preacher of the new covenant was born with the rights of the eighth lot; because as the old Covenant is often expressed by the seventh number on account of the Sabbath, so frequently is the new Covenant by the eighth, because of the sacrament of our Lord’s or our resurrection.” Casting lots, in actuality, was a means to avoid human connivance or manipulation; interestingly, Luke will recount in Acts 1:26 that Matthias was chosen as successor to Judas, precisely by casting lots, so as to enable God to act, rather than men.

While “on call” at the Temple, the priests lived there, not merely for the convenience of the location but also to ensure that they observed ritual purity by abstaining from carnal relations with their wives.4 It is the “incense hour” (Vespers, as it is known in the Christian Dispensation). To continue using Christian terminology, Zechariah is in the sanctuary (but not the Holy of Holies), while the assembly occupy the nave. He has advanced to the altar of incense to offer their prayers (“Let my prayer be counted as incense before thee, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice!” – words put on our lips by Psalm 141:2); as he prays for them, they pray with him. The liturgical action is “interrupted,” we could say, by the appearance of an angel at the right side of the altar, which causes upset for the priest.5 Now, truth be told, that should not have been his reaction had he remembered the assurance of Psalm 16:8: “I keep the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.” This is especially so because the angel is a “messenger” from God and thus stands in the place of God. Rightly, however, fear (or better, awe) overcomes Zechariah, for he regards God as “the Almighty One,” not his “buddy,” as is so often the situation in our day due to a most unfortunate spiritual devolution. The angel utters that line, which appears so often in Holy Writ and which functioned almost as a mantra from St. John Paul II: “Do not be afraid.” Origen sees a second motive in the angelic appearance: “The angel not only soothes his fears, but gladdens him with good tidings, adding, For your prayer is heard, and your wife Elizabeth shall bear a son.”

If, in truth, his prayer has been heard, why doubt? Perhaps because, praying for so long without an apparent affirmative reply from the Lord, he now views the news as too good to be true. He has become immune to the pain and even comfortable with it. Who among us cannot see oneself in Zechariah?

The child of promise is given his name by the angel – John, meaning “Gift of God.” Names were (and still should be) very important and the result of serious reflection, hence the Church’s centuries-old requirement that a child be baptized with the name of a saint (regrettably abandoned for all practical purposes in the post-conciliar fracas). Zechariah will have to remember this name at the boy’s circumcision.

The old priest is told that his son will bring joy to him and to many others and that he will be great “before the Lord.” Not necessarily before men, as events will play out. Further, he will not drink wine or any other form of alcohol; in other words, he was to be a “Nazirite” (not to be confused with a “Nazarene”), that is, one consecrated to God, set apart for a divine mission, filled with the Holy Spirit, even in the womb. We see again how Luke returns to his refrain regarding the presence of the Holy Spirit. This verse has caused theologians to speculate that, although John was not conceived without original sin, he was born without it, precisely as Our Lady would visit Elizabeth and, we are told, Baby John leaps for joy as he senses the presence of His cousin the Baby Jesus.

What is the exact mission of John? He will “turn” many (but not all) to the Lord God. The Hebrew word here is “shuv,” to turn as to repent; the noun is “teshuvah” – repentance. Thus, he is to take up the prophetic mantle of Elijah, preparing the way for the Anointed One, just as Elijah will prepare the way for the Christ’s Second Coming. This “turning” will occur in ever-expanding concentric circles: from the family environment to larger audiences, so that the “disobedient” become obedient to the Law of God, effecting a communal preparation for the Messiah.

Zechariah doubts the possibility of all this, causing his personal limitations to block the good news he has received, so that the angel finally reveals his own name, “Gabriel,” which means “God is powerful.” God can do what man cannot. That does not change the disposition of Zechariah, leading to Gabriel’s final pronouncement, introduced by the revelatory interjection, “Behold!” Because the old man has spoken out of turn (expressing his doubt), he is punished by being struck dumb, until the day when he is forced to acknowledge the reality of the promise.

The congregation has gotten fidgety, wondering what’s taking the priest so long (obviously such concerns are not just a modern phenomenon!). After all, how long does it take to impose incense? Zechariah emerges, silent, leading the faithful to conclude that he has seen an angel. He finishes out his priestly charge and only then returns home, presumably to do his part in bringing about the longed-for birth of a son. Elizabeth does conceive and assumes a hidden life, grateful that the Lord has removed her “reproach among men.”

Here we must fast-forward to the birth of John the Baptist.

The child of Zechariah and Elizabeth is born, to the joy and amazement of the populace. The rite of circumcision “enrolled” a Jewish boy in the People of the Covenant and was the time for his naming. According to immemorial custom, various names are suggested (all having to do with the names of ancestors). Elizabeth declares the boy’s name should be “John” (clearly having been advised of Gabriel’s declaration to her husband). The attendees argue that no one in the family has that name, causing the proud father to assert, “He shall be called John.” Zechariah seconds the proclamation of his wife, with consummate determination. Why such determination? The birth of this child was to herald in an entirely new dispensation, hence, a brand new name. Zechariah has finally acceded to the divine plan, resulting in the loosing of his tongue, to the amazement and joy of the whole people, who then speculate on just what this new boy will become.

Now we are ready to pray the Benedictus.

Benedictus (Luke 1:68-79)

Benedictus Dominus Deus Israel; quia visitavit et fecit redemptionem plebis suae
et erexit cornu salutis nobis, in domo David pueri sui,
sicut locutus est per os sanctorum, qui a saeculo sunt, prophetarum eius,
salutem ex inimicis nostris, et de manu omnium, qui oderunt nos;
ad faciendam misericordiam cum patribus nostris, et memorari testamenti sui sancti,
iusiurandum, quod iuravit ad Abraham patrem nostrum, daturum se nobis,
ut sine timore, de manu inimicorum liberati, serviamus illi
in sanctitate et iustitia coram ipso omnibus diebus nostris.
Et tu, puer, propheta Altissimi vocaberis: praeibis enim ante faciem Domini parare vias eius,
ad dandam scientiam salutis plebi eius in remissionem peccatorum eorum,
per viscera misericordiae Dei nostri, in quibus visitabit nos oriens ex alto,
illuminare his, qui in tenebris et in umbra mortis sedent, ad dirigendos pedes nostros in viam pacis.

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has visited and redeemed his people,
and has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we should be saved from our enemies,
and from the hand of all who hate us;
to perform the mercy promised to our fathers,
and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath which he swore to our father Abraham,
to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,
might serve him without fear,
in holiness and righteousness before him all the days of our life.
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
in the forgiveness of their sins,
through the tender mercy of our God,
when the day shall dawn upon us from on high
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.

And his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied, saying,
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people. . . .

The lead-in to this canticle informs us that Zechariah received, like his wife Elizabeth, a special or particular infusion of the grace of the Holy Spirit (unlike Mary, who – as the preeminent woman of the Spirit – speaks spontaneously). It should also be noted that this hymn is divided into two parts: the first, dealing with the whole of the Chosen People; the second, dealing specifically with the son of his own loins.

When the old priest prays that God be “blessed,” he is echoing the ancient hope of Israel, not that God become blessed (for He already and always is) but that He be acknowledged as such in the sight of men. Bede the Venerable comments: “But the Lord visited His people who were pining away as it were from long sickness, and by the blood of His only begotten Son, redeemed them who were sold under sin. Which thing Zacharias, knowing that it would soon be accomplished, relates in the prophetic manner as if it were already passed. But he says, His people, not that when He came He found them His own, but that by visiting He made them so.”

. . . . and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David. . .

St. John Chrysostom explains: “Now by a horn he means power, glory, and honor, deriving it metaphorically from the brute creatures, to whom God has given horns for defense and glory.” Zechariah connects the present divine phenomenon with the lineage and promises to King David.

as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old. . . .

Zechariah situates the birth of John within the entire spectrum of salvation history. Bede expounds on this notion: “But he says, Which have been since the world began. Because all the Scriptures of the Old Testament were a constant prophecy of Christ. For both our father Adam himself, and the other fathers, by their deeds bore testimony to His dispensation.” Indeed, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, citing St. Augustine: “As an old saying put it, the New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New” (CCC 129).

that we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all who hate us. . .

The enemies spoken of here are the enemies of God, for His enemies are (or should be) those of His people. As Our Lord warned His disciples, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you” (Jn 15:18). Thus, followers of Christ today should not be surprised at the visceral hatred exhibited toward Christ and His Church to the present day. In reality, no serious Christian should be astonished at such animosity. Origen draws out the implications: “‘Deliverance from our enemies’ (Luke 1:74). We should not think that this means corporeal enemies, but rather spiritual ones. For the Lord Jesus came, ‘mighty in battle,’ (Ps. 24:8) to destroy all our enemies and free us from their snares, namely, from the hand of all our enemies ‘and from the hand of all who hate us.’”

to perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath which he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us. . .

Zechariah understands, profoundly, the meaning and implications of the covenant, with its origins in that of the covenant first made to Abraham. And so, what has happened in the present moment is “merely” the fulfillment of God’s commitment from of old. St. Bede offers some precious detail: “Having announced that the Lord, according to the declaration of the Prophet, would be born of the house of David, he now says, that the same Lord to fulfill the covenant He made with Abraham will deliver us, because chiefly to these patriarchs of Abraham’s seed was promised the gathering of the Gentiles, or the incarnation of Christ. But David is put first, because to Abraham was promised the holy assembly of the Church; whereas to David it was told that from him Christ was to he born. And therefore after what was said of David, he adds concerning Abraham the words, To perform the mercy promised to our fathers, &c.”

Origen makes this intriguing suggestion: “‘To bring about mercy for our fathers.’ I believe that, when our Lord came, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were blessed with God’s mercy. Previously they had seen His day and rejoiced (Jn. 8:56). It is not believable that they did not profit from the later, when He came and was born of a virgin. And why do I speak of the patriarchs? I will boldly follow the authority of the Scriptures to higher planes, for the presence of the Lord Jesus and His work benefitted not only what is earthly but also what is heavenly. Therefore the apostle too says, ‘Making peace by the blood of His cross, whether on earth or in heaven’ (Col. 1:20).”

that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear. . .

One of the most debilitating experiences of any human being is that of fear. Hence, the angelic admonition to Mary and Zechariah alike, “Be not afraid.” Origen extrapolates on this heavenly counsel: “Frequently are men delivered from the hands of the enemy, but not without fear. For when fear and peril have gone before, and a man is then plucked from the enemies’ hand, he is delivered indeed, but not without fear. Therefore said he, that the coming of Christ caused us to be snatched from the enemies’ hands without fear. For we suffered not from their evil designs, but He suddenly parting us from them, has led us out to our own allotted resting place.”

. . . in holiness and righteousness before him all the days of our life.

Holiness is the quality of Almighty God, while righteousness pertains to the person attached to that God. At every Mass, we echo the seraphim beheld by Isaiah in lauding the Lord God in singing of His three-fold holiness: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory” (6:3). The divine holiness must needs be reflected in the righteousness of His people: “. . . you shall therefore be holy, for I am holy” (Lev 11:45). Bede explains: “For whosoever either departs from God’s service before he dies, or by any uncleanness stains either the strictness or purity of his faith, or strives to be holy and righteous before men, and not before God, does not yet serve the Lord in perfect freedom from the hand of his spiritual enemies. . . .” Christ calls us to “perfect freedom.”

The “modern man” adores freedom, but what kind of freedom are we talking about? As St. Paul teaches us, Christian freedom should not be confused with do-what-you-want-whenever-you-want, that is, licentiousness (see 1 Cor 3:17; Gal 5:13). More specifically, Our Lord Himself taught us: “. . . if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (Jn 8:36). And so, we are truly free only when we follow in the footsteps of Christ Himself. Pope Benedict XVI, in his inaugural homily, gave a brilliant and scintillating exposition of Christian freedom.6

The canticle then takes a new turn as the now-proud father addresses his as-yet unborn son.

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways

As we have indicated in a previous installment, a prophet in the biblical sense was a spokesman for God, charged with making the divine agenda the human agenda. In our sad moment of history when life in the womb – and even the life of a new-born – is treated with more disdain than that of a family pet, the commentary of St. Ambrose is worth considering: “Now perhaps some may think it an absurd extravagance of the mind to address a child of eight days old. But if we keep our eyes fixed upon higher things, we surely can understand that the son might hear the voice of his father, who before he was born heard the salutation of Mary. The Prophet knew that there were certain organs of healing in a Prophet which were unclosed by the Spirit of God, not by the growth of the body. He possessed the faculty of understanding who was moved by the feeling of exultation.” Under the impulse of the Holy Spirit, Zechariah also exercises a prophetic role in seeing how his own dear son would be a prophet.

to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins

Salvation, we see here, is linked to both knowledge and forgiveness of sins. Zechariah the priest must have recalled the condemnation by Hosea of so many priests before him, precisely for their failure to provide the People of God with the needed “knowledge of salvation”: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me. And since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children” (4:6). On the second matter, St. Bede observes: “For as if desiring to explain the name of Jesus, i.e. the Savior, he frequently makes mention of salvation, but lest men should think it was a temporal salvation which was promised, he adds, for the forgiveness of sins.”

through the tender mercy of our God, when the day shall dawn upon us from on high

It is this verse that makes the praying of this canticle at Lauds (Morning Prayer) so appropriate as we render praise to the “dawn. . . from on high.” The mercy lauded here is the “rachamin” of God, that is, the love a mother has for the child of her womb. Yes, God loves us with a most tender love. St. John Chrysostom explicates this exhilarating truth: “Which mercy we find not indeed by our own seeking, but God from on high has appeared to us, as it follows; Whereby (i.e. by His tender mercy) the day-spring from on high (that is, Christ) has visited us, taking upon Him our flesh.” Centuries before Francis Thompson, Chrysostom introduces us to “The Hound of Heaven,” who pursues us to enter into a relationship of love with Him.

to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace

Darkness, death, and peace. Darkness and death are the perennial fears of human beings from time immemorial. Likewise, peace is our perennial hope and desire. The first two must be vanquished in order to experience the third. Theophylact links all three: “But not only does the Lord at His rising give light to those who sit in darkness, but he says something further as it follows, to direct our feet in the way of peace. The way of peace is the way of righteousness, to which He has directed our feet, i.e. the affections of our souls.” St. Gregory asserts: “For we guide our steps in the way of peace, when we walk in that line of conduct wherein we depart not from the grace of our Maker.” Centuries later, Dante would declare that “in His will is our peace.” What would that latter-day prophet of the Middle Ages have us apprehend by that statement? First, that God wills us to live in peace; second, that we can know that peace when – and only when – we conform our wills to His.

Our canticle has concluded on this hopeful and joyous note. Luke gives us one additional verse: “And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness till the day of his manifestation to Israel.” The Evangelist will use a similar line to end his Infancy Narrative in regard to the Christ Child (2:40).

Where did the Lord’s precursor grow and become “strong in the spirit”? “In the wilderness.” Where might that have been? As John begins his public ministry of pointing out the Lamb of God, we are told that he came out of the wilderness, confirmed in all three Synoptic Gospels (Mt 3:1; Mk 1:4; Lk 3:2). Many commentators have suggested that the wilderness or desert in question was down at the Dead Sea, which would suggest further that John lived among the Qumran community (who left us the Dead Sea scrolls). This is not wild-eyed speculation because the preaching and praxis of the Baptist reflect, even in his diet and garb) very clearly the theology of those proto-monks living on the cusp of the Christian Dispensation.

Choral renditions of this glorious hymn come from artists like Rice, Gesualdo, Victoria, and Moreno. Interestingly, most of these compositions were intended for the Tenebrae services of Holy Week.7

Having reflected now on both panels of the Lucan diptych of the annunciations and conceptions of both Jesus and John the Baptist, sung of in the Magnificat and Benedictus, it might be well to have recourse to another hymnographer, the fourth-century St. Ephrem the Syrian (known as “the Harp of the Holy Spirit), who follows the pattern of Luke in comparing and contrasting the parents and their offspring:

The elderly Elizabeth gave birth to the last of the prophets, and Mary, a young girl, to the Lord of the angels.
The daughter of Aaron gave birth to the voice in the desert (Is. 63:9), but the daughter of David to the strong God of the earth.
The barren one gave birth to him who remits sins, but the Virgin gave birth to Him who takes them away (Jn. 1:29).
Elizabeth gave birth to him who reconciled people through repentance, but Mary gave birth to Him who purified the lands of uncleanness.
The elder one lit a lamp in the house of Jacob, his father, for this lamp itself was John (Jn. 5:35), while the younger one lit the Sun of Justice (Mal. 4:2) for all the nations.
The angel announced to Zechariah, so that the slain one would proclaim the crucified One and that the hated one would proclaim the envied One.
He who was to baptize with water would proclaim Him who would baptize with fire and with the Holy Spirit (Mat. 3:11).
The light, which was not obscure, would proclaim the Sun of Justice.
The one filled with the Spirit would proclaim concerning Him who gives the Spirit.
The priest calling with the trumpet would proclaim concerning the One who is to come at the sound of the trumpet at the end.
The voice would proclaim concerning the Word, and the one who saw the dove would proclaim concerning Him upon Whom the dove rested, like the lightning before the thunder.

Endnotes:

1Some have referred to Luke as the first church historian, not without reason, since he gives us a primer in church history in the second volume of his work, the Acts of the Apostles.

2Which means that since Elizabeth and Mary were “kinswomen,” Our Lady also hailed from a priestly line.

3The Hebrew word would have been “zadok”; Matthew speaks of Joseph as “dikaios,” the Greek equivalent. From a Jewish perspective, this would have been the highest compliment possible.

4Here we see an intuition that priesthood and continence are intimately related. In the New Covenant, the Eternal High Priest exercises His priestly ministry not in an on-again, off-again fashion but at the very core of His being: He is always and everywhere a priest; thus, it is fitting that those who share in Christ’s Priesthood likewise live a life of perpetual continence.

5Why does the revelation come in the form of an apparition, rather than a dream (as, for example, was the case with St. Joseph on two occasions)? Chrysostom suggests: “But the angel evidently came not in a dream, because the tidings he brought were too hard to be understood, and needed therefore a more visible and marvelous manifestation.”

6“At this point, my mind goes back to 22 October 1978, when Pope John Paul II began his ministry here in Saint Peter’s Square. His words on that occasion constantly echo in my ears: ‘Do not be afraid! Open wide the doors for Christ!’ The Pope was addressing the mighty, the powerful of this world, who feared that Christ might take away something of their power if they were to let him in, if they were to allow the faith to be free. Yes, he would certainly have taken something away from them: the dominion of corruption, the manipulation of law and the freedom to do as they pleased. But he would not have taken away anything that pertains to human freedom or dignity, or to the building of a just society. The Pope was also speaking to everyone, especially the young. Are we not perhaps all afraid in some way? If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? And once again the Pope said: No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation. And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life.” (24 April 2005)

7Tenebrae (“darkness” in Latin) is the service (of Matins and Lauds) celebrated at night, on the vigils of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday, with the only light coming from a fifteen-branch candelabrum. With the chanting of each Scriptural passage, a candle is extinguished until only the Christ candle remains (taken away, symbolizing the Lord’s death), so that all are left in total darkness, like that which accompanied Christ’s death. The service fell into desuetude after Vatican II but has witnessed a strong revival in recent years.


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About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 192 Articles
Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas is the editor of the The Catholic Response, and the author of over 500 articles for numerous Catholic publications, as well as several books, including The Catholic Church and the Bible and Understanding the Sacraments.

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