The Sacred Wellspring of Zechariah’s Song

December 4, 2020

By Sister Danielle Gagnon

I know not everyone enjoys musical theater. Such eagerness to proclaim one’s experience that sudden, spontaneous song seems the only adequate response irks some. I love it. I suspect Luke would be a musical theater fan, too. Most biblical scholars think that the canticles were added to the infancy narrative after the initial story was written. This means, then, that Luke went out of his way to attribute the poetic, prophetic Benedictus to Zechariah. Why?

Art featuring the Canticle of Zechariah
——— Art by Sister Renee Yann

We lovers of musical theater know that when a character breaks into song, it signals an important point in the story, one that is filled with emotion. When Zechariah begins his hymn of praise, he has not spoken in months. He lost his ability to talk when he doubted Gabriel’s announcement that his wife Elizabeth would give birth to a son. Surely silencing is a harsh penalty for doubt, but it does not turn Zechariah’s heart from God. Instead, when his voice is finally restored, he uses it to proclaim, “Praise the Lord, the God of Israel, who shepherds the people and sets them free” (Luke 1:68). Zechariah sings of God’s promise, the sacred covenant, salvation, forgiveness and peace. This is a remarkably generous response even for the holy, obedient priest Zechariah. From what sacred well does Zechariah draw the words of the Benedictus?

Perhaps it is from the wellspring of love Zechariah discovered in holding his new baby. An impossible promise fulfilled. Hope for the future. How could he not praise God? I remember the first time I held my newly born nephew. I was filled with awe and hope, and a fierceness I had never known welled up in me. The instinct to protect gave rise to boundless love. I praised God, and I begged God to take care of this baby: keep him safe, give him peace. Isn’t this what Zechariah asks when he sings, “free us from our enemies, so we might worship without fear and be holy and just all our days” (Luke 1:74-75)? Zechariah’s is an emotional prayer of remembrance and thanksgiving to God, and a beseeching petition for a hopeful future for his son and his son’s generation.

I wonder what Zechariah imagined when he sang these words to his new baby: “And you, child, will be called prophet of the Most High, for you will come to prepare a pathway for the Lord” (Luke 1:76)?  Did the image of his son—grown, covered in camel’s hair and sticky with honey— come to mind? Could he have heard the echo of his infant’s thunderous, solitary voice—“prepare the way”—sounding from the future? I don’t know, but I do know that the future is usually everything but what we imagine it will be. Ah, but the present; in the present, we know “God’s tender mercy” (Luke 1:78).

As the present pain, anxiety and loss of this year surround us still, we, like Zechariah might find ourselves without words. Yet, as we sink deeper into Advent, this Sunday’s readings help us to recall the promises of ages past: Isaiah’s words of comfort, Peter’s assurance of promises fulfilled and Zechariah’s grown son. And, like Zechariah, we can draw from our own wellspring. Our wellspring of Mercy strengthens our voices now to sing God’s praise in our prayer and in our action. How we pray now, how we act now, is what the world will be. “Praise the Lord, the God of Israel, who shepherds the people and sets them free” (Luke 1:68).

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  1. Rose Martin

    Danielle,
    What a beautiful gift! There are so many sentences, ideas here that I want to go back and sink into. Thank you for both delighting and challenging.
    Rose Martin


  2. Richard Mary Burke

    Danielle, what an inspiring reflection! You have enhanced my appreciation for Zechariah while helping to deepen my awareness of identity with him in his spiritual journey.
    Thank you for sharing the richness of your creativity of expression and truth.
    Blessings, Richard Mary


  3. Marian Uba

    Thank you Danielle, this is beautiful!


  4. Carol Ann Wenning

    Hi Danielle,
    It is clear that your words flow from the well stream of your life of prayer. Someday you might want to consider writing a book. Many good spiritual writers have gone to God. The world is hungering for your gift!
    Blessings,
    Carol Ann Wenning


  5. Jeannine Burch

    Thank you for getting me enthusiastic about Sunday’s liturgy! I’m so excited about celebrating Eucharist this Sunday after reading your beautiful, thoughtful reflection! Hope I remember to read it before mass Sunday!


  6. Mary Sheehan

    Danielle,
    I’ve always felt a kinship with Zechariah since the time I spent nine months at a pretty-much silent retreat house. Your reflection colored him and the Benedictus in such a new and upswing way for me.
    Thank you.


  7. Rosemary Hudak

    Danielle. Your reflection is beautiful. I will pray the Benedictus differently after reading your prayerful thoughts.


  8. Eileen Hogan

    Danielle,
    Your depiction of Zechariah has given me a deeper appreciation of the emotional impact when he met his son John for the first time.
    Thank you, Eileen Hogan


  9. Claudette Schiratti

    Danielle,
    Your reflection helps me pray more carefully in Benedictus in the Mercy Prayer book. Thank you.


  10. Jan Powell

    Thank you. Just what I need to read this morning, beautiful. Blessings Jan Powell


  11. Mary Riordan

    Danielle: That was the best commentary on the Canticle of Zachariah I have ever heard. It was most helpful especially as we prepare for the 2nd Sunday of Advent. Thank you so much.


  12. Patience Robbins

    What a beautiful reflection, Danielle. Thank you for sharing this.


  13. Sharon Kirsch

    Danielle,
    Thank you for sharing such a beautiful reflection. The gospel Sunday will mean much more now. I will share it with our RCIA candidates also.
    Peace


  14. Sr. Joan Sherry RSM

    Meaningful reflection and beautifully written. When I pray Zechariah’s song daily, I will picture him praying with remembrance and thanksgiving.


  15. Luke Kevin O'Brien

    Thank you so much, Danielle.
    I very much enjoyed the piece


  16. Meg Quinlan

    Danielle, Your reflection makes Zechariah real for me in a new way. I can feel that baby in my arms and sense the joy and relief Zechariah felt. His hope had to be fuller than ever before. Thanks so much.


  17. Kathleen M Smith

    What a blessing!
    Reading this on Friday afternoon has set the tone for a wonderful reflective weekend. Last year at this time some of us were blessed to have been at Sea Isle and be fed with inspiration after inspiration. You, Danielle, have done the same. I read your reflection twice already and will continue to be open to it throughtout the weekend. Thank you!


  18. Mary Trainer

    Danielle I love hearing the song God is singing in you. Thanks for letting it sound in our hearts.


  19. Lori Williams

    Thank you Sister Danielle,
    What a beautiful reflection! As a parent, I have had multiple days when I would ponder how my children would make their marks on the world. I may have been gifted as their mother, it was, and still is, God who shepherds my family. As this pandemic has separated so many of us physically, it is good to be reminded we are never out of the sight of the Loving Shepherd.


  20. Trudy Traynor

    Beautiful Danielle….a special gift to have shared with us. I miss seeing you. Your journey continues.


  21. Fran Repka

    Danielle, what a beautiful and passionate prayer you have given us. A prayer that deeply touches the heart with awe, joy, and hope for these times.
    I am away giving retreats, and your reflection feeds me. I have a new appreciation of the canticle of Zechariah as well. Thank you.


  22. Beth Flannery RSM

    Dearest Danielle,

    Thank you for “setting free” the humanity and wonder of Zechariah and John (and for the delightful image of the latter “covered in camel hair and sticky with honey!”.
    The power of your reflection opens the eyes of my heart anew. What a blessing to share with you in the ever renewing “wellspring of Mercy”.

    With tender gratitude, Beth Flannery


  23. Wanda Smith

    As another lover of musical theater I could see the scene so beautifully through your words. I felt the music, the movement and dance. Thank you for sharing your gift with us!


  24. Cathleen Cahill, RSM

    Thank you, Danielle. You gave me insight into Zachariah’s song that I have not ever had. Advent peace.


  25. Renee Yann

    Your beautiful reflection is so alive, Danielle! Thank you!


  26. Sue LaVoie, Companion in Mercy

    Danielle,
    I’ve fallen behind in my Advent readings but so glad I found this today. The word that stands out for me is ‘fierceness’ … the loving protective stance of people towards the most vulnerable among us. Thank you for this moving reflection.


  27. S Kathleen Smith

    And we are blessed through you Danielle! Thank you


  28. anne connolly

    what does it imply to belong to god, which we will spend time with on friday evening, is again highlighted here in your life-giving words. we need to go to the theatre! one day…


  29. Joy Clough

    Danielle, thank you for this reflection. I love your use of musical theater to give us a fresh approach to Zechariah’s canticle/song.