Canticle of Zechariah

[Simbanggabi-IX (Lk. 1:67-79)]

On this last of the Simbanggabi Masses the beautiful Canticle of Zechariah, prayed every day in the official worship of the Catholic Church, is our Good News. It is a song of praise, which begins with the words, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; for he has come to his people and set them free…” It is praise coming from the lips of a chastised, repentant, cleansed, and liberated Jewish high priest, glorifying God not just for liberating him from his dumbness, his inability to talk, but for liberating his people from their alienation from God and their alienation from themselves. In this light, the Canticle of Zechariah is the happy-ending to the story of Zechariah who reacted with disbelief and cynicism when the Angel Gabriel announced to him that he and his wife Elizabeth would have a role to play in God’s plan of salvation. He had been told that his wife, despite her advanced age, would have a son; that he was to give this son the name, John; and that he would special and mighty, and prepare the way of the Lord. But instead of Zechariah believing in the message of the angel, he reacted with scorn and negativity, challenging the message of the angel with his cynical question, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” In his disbelief, he was punished. He was slapped with an inability to speak, forced into a silence that would humbly consider the presence and power of the Lord.

The story of Zechariah is of course contrasted in St. Luke’s Gospel with the story of Mary, and of how she was introduced to the role she would play in the history of salvation. It was also the Angel Gabriel who announced to Mary that she would bear a son, that she should name him Jesus, and that he would be great and called Son of the Most High. Mary also responded to Gabriel’s message with a question. But it was not a reactive question in scornful disbelief and cynicism. It was a response rather that sought to better understand God’s Will, and the role that she would have to play in implementing that will, despite her limitations. How could she have a child if she was yet a virgin? How could she bear a son if as of yet she had no husband. It was Gabriel who responded to Mary’s questions with clarification and light. He explained: she would give birth through the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit; her child would be called holy and the Son of God. He declared: nothing was impossible with God. Soon after, in contrast to the dumbness of Zechariah, Mary burst out in praise, “My spirit proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior. For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness; behold from now on will all generations call me blessed. For the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name…” (Lk 1: 46ff.)

Mary’s Magnificat is a song of praise and joy for the wonder of God’s presence in her life and the awesomeness of her having been chosen to play a role in the history of salvation. Zechariah’s Canticle is also a song of praise in the wonder God’s liberating power. He had been struck dumb. In his silence, he had finally recognized the Power of God. In his silence, he had quieted his chatter, his raucous human reasoning, his empty rationalizations, and he had submitted. In his silence, he had reversed his cynical refusal to obey, and obeyed. “His name shall be John,” he said. His relatives had wanted to name him after their relatives. But the angel had said he was to name the child John. So when the child was announced, Zechariah, from the inner silence of his faith and the silent submission of his new-found obedience, insisted through the eloquence of his writing tablet, “John is his name” (Lk 1:63). And with this silent act of faith and obedience, Zechariah’s speech was returned to him, so that as Mary had broken out in praise, so could he.

“Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; for he has come to his people and set them free… He has raised up for us a mighty Savior… He has set us free from the hands of our enemies, free to worship him without fear all the days of our life” (cf Lk 1:68-73).

The Lord has come to set us free from our stupidity, our cynicism, our refusal to believe, our sin.

His son, John, would help in preparing for the coming of the Lord who would free us from darkness.

This is the darkness of our pride, our hatred, our meanness, our coldness, our violence. This is our refusal to accept the presence of God in our lives, our denial of his light. This is our decision to stay in the darkness of our depression, and wallow in the loneliness of the dark night of our souls.

In this context, the canticle of Zechariah proclaims – in what must be one of Scriptures most beautiful lines – the summary of the Christmas Good News:

“In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet in the way of peace.”

The dawn has broken upon us!

God comes in compassion. He feels for us. Compassion: he suffers with us. He sees us dwelling in darkness and the shadow of death, imprisoned by the lingering night, he comes as dawn from on high breaking upon us. His message is a message of peace.

Peace on the earth. Peace to men and women of good will. You are not alone. I am with you. I am Emmanuel. I am who am. Nothing is impossible with me.

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About Joel Tabora, S.J.

Jesuit. Educator
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