The Sacred Wellspring of Zechariah’s Song
December 4, 2020
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?
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).