Zechariah and John the Baptist
On the Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist, I find myself reflecting on the song of praise attributed to his father, Zechariah, known by its Latin name, the Benedictus.
Who was Zechariah?
Zechariah was a priest from the family of Aaron. His wife Elizabeth was of the same family line. They were elderly and had no children. According to the Gospel of Luke, one day when Zechariah was serving at the temple in Jerusalem, he was chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary of the Lord to offer sacrifice. This was the most solemn duty for any priest and large numbers of people gathered outside to pray. Suddenly, an angel appeared to him, “standing at the right of the altar of incense.” The angel announced that his prayers and those of his wife for a child would be answered. The child would be a son and was to be named John. The angel explained that this child would be filled with the Holy Spirit while still within his mother’s womb and would bring back many of the sons of Israel to God. He would prepare “a people well-disposed” for the Lord. (Lk 1:5-17)
Zechariah found all of this hard to believe, so he asked the angel for more details about how it could happen — after all, both he and Elizabeth were beyond their normal child-bearing ages. The angel, Gabriel, responded that because he questioned the message, he would remain mute until the birth of the child. Then he would see that the Lord’s promise had been fulfilled. And so it happened. (Lk 1:18-25)
Nine months later, the child was born. Elizabeth’s cousin Mary, who had also been blessed by a visit from Gabriel, had come to help her for a few months and the child within Elizabeth’s womb leaped with the joy of Mary’s coming. (Lk 141) When John was born, all the relatives and neighbors expected that he would be named for his father, Zechariah, but both Elizabeth and Zechariah insisted that the child’s name would be John. With that, Zechariah’s tongue was freed and he spoke, praising God and uttering a prophecy regarding his son’s role in salvation history.
A Prophetic Canticle
Zechariah’s prophetic song is not a statement like that of a fortune teller. Prophecy in Biblical terms refers to speaking on behalf of God of the underlying reality of what God is doing in the lives of the members of the community.
Zechariah begins by blessing God as the God of Israel who visits and ransoms his people. God raises a savior from the House of David, the royal house, as promised in days of old. This savior will rescue the people from the hands of their foes in fulfillment of the covenant established with Abraham, delivering them from fear and freeing them to serve the Lord all the days of their lives. Only after laying out the ancient promises, Zechariah speaks briefly to his own child — a child who will be called a prophet of the Most High because he will go before the Lord to announce the coming of salvation and to help the people prepare to receive it (the image used is to prepare straight paths for the coming savior). Zechariah concludes by noting that all of this is a work of kindness from the Lord, the Dayspring who in his tender mercy will visit Israel, freeing those who sit in darkness and guiding their feet into the way of peace. (Lk 1:68-79)
A World Turns
In the birth of John the Baptist, the trajectory of history began to turn. The final step of God’s plan to reclaim all of creation and return it to the initial unity with God has been initiated. God does not force this transition or the people involved in it to cooperate. But God persistently works with humans and through human history to bring it about. Zechariah reminds all who hear his voice through the ages that God keeps the covenant, rescues the people, gathers the community, and wants to bring all people back to joyful unity in Love.
The Christian church (community) remembers this song of prayer, praise and promise in the Liturgy of the Hours. As part of Morning Prayer, the People of God around the world recite or sing this canticle daily. Some chant it. Some arrange its words to fit other religious or popular tunes. One of my favorite versions was set to the tune of an English folk song by Ruth Duck. Those who really listen deeply to it find a special joy bubbling into their day as they join Zechariah in praising a God who works such wonders.
Image from Holy Cross Monastery in Jerusalem