A Reflection on the 'Benedictus Canticle'


This beautiful Canticle which forms part of the ‘Morning Prayer’ of the Church took on deeper significance for me during the Christmas Season. This Prayer is the fruit of Zachariah’s reflections on his experience in the Temple when as a priest he was burning incense before the Lord.
An angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the incense altar. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled, and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel told him:

 

  “Stop being afraid Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to name him John. You will have great joy and many people will rejoice at his birth, because he will be great in the Lord’s presence. Luke 1:11-14

Zechariah, as we know was silenced and lost his power of speech because he did not immediately believe the message of the Angel Gabriel. Nevertheless, Zechariah had listened very intently to the angel’s words and pondered deeply on the event as the Canticle reveals.
In the weeks that followed his experience at the Altar of Incense and Elizabeth, indeed became pregnant, he must have communicated with her by writing. The Gospel tells us they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. We can imagine them poring over passages of the Torah together, trying to make sense of the events and phrases such as: “He is the one who will go before the Lord with the spirit and power of Elijah. Luke 1:17
The visit of Mary must have been a time of great joy and enlightenment for them. Although not recorded in the Gospels, I imagine Joachim and Anna would have accompanied Mary on this visit. Having imparted the experience of such a momentous ‘happening’to her parents, they must have been dealing with many mixed emotions and while not doubting the truthfulness and integrity of their daughter they would surely be seeking confirmation and information. If this elderly, barren woman was indeed well on in pregnancy the words of the Angel Gabriel would be confirmed and other facts might come to light.

It must have been a very joyous gathering. The Gospel relates that as soon as she heard Mary’s voice Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke loudly those wonderful and familiar words:

 “Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb ... why am I so favoured, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfil his promises to her!” Luke 1:42-45.
 

We can imagine that Elizabeth described to their visitors, Zechariah‘s experience in the Temple and their joy and excitement when she realised she was actually carrying a baby. Mary in her turn would have related her own experience and the words of the Angel Gabriel:

“Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favour with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” Luke1:30-33

Many things must have been becoming clearer for Elizabeth and Zechariah as the conversations continued. It becomes obvious that the lives of these two babies are intertwined and the two visits of the Angel Gabriel are part of the same story which is unfolding around them and through them.

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will cover you with its shadow. So the child will be holy will be called the Son of God. Know this too your kinswoman Elizabeth has in her old age herself conceived a son and she who people called barren is now in her sixth month for nothing is impossible for God.” Luke 35-37


It was during these conversations that Mary expressed her joy, exultation and sense of the historical context of these events in her “Magnificat” which like Zechariah’s ‘Benedictus’ has become part of the official Prayer of the Church.

It is not too fanciful to imagine that the three women gathered together for women’s talk on the joy and excitement of these extraordinary pregnancies and the forthcoming births, while Joachim and Zachariah with tablet and pencil in hand pondered together on the meaning of it all. Perhaps Zachariah posed in writing to a stunned Joachim some crucial questions: ‘Could Mary’s child be the long awaited Messiah? What we was the meaning of Elizabeth’s inspired words ‘Why am I so favoured, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?’

The Gospel tells us that Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home. It is left in doubt if those three months included the circumcision and the naming of the child. My feeling is that Mary and perhaps, her parents were present and witnessed the confusion regarding the naming of the child. How else would we know about it if not from Mary? Elizabeth and Zechariah, we are told were both advanced in years and probably died before John and Jesus began their ministries.

It must have been a thrilling moment for all, when Zachariah in obedience to the Angel Gabriel’s message wrote ‘His name is John’ and his speech returned.

The fruit of Zachariah’s conversations, questions, and reflection are expressed in the prayer he spontaneously uttered as soon as his speech was restored. His ‘Benedictus’ clearly reveals his belief that Jesus is indeed the promised Messiah that was promised to Abraham and that his son is the one who will go before him to prepare the people for the Messiah’s coming. It is interesting to note that Zechariah still had the Old Testament expectation of a temporal leader: ‘A saviour who would free us from our foes, from the hands of all who hate us.’

It is small wonder then that Jesus’ ministry was so difficult and that even his closest disciple did not understand who he was and were so utterly devastated by his death and so slow to accept his resurrection
Nonetheless Zachariah leaves us a rich and wonderful legacy. His nine months of silence bore a splendid fruit.

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel!
He has visited his people and redeemed them.

He has raised up for us a mighty saviour
in the house of David his servant,
as he promised by the lips of holy men,
those who were his prophets from of old.

A saviour who would free us from our foes,
from the hands of all who hate us.
So his love for our fathers is fulfilled
and his holy covenant remembered.

He swore to Abraham our father to grant us,
that free from fear, and saved from the hands of our foes,
we might serve him in holiness and justice
all the days of our life in his presence.

As for you, little child,
you shall be called a prophet of God, the Most High.
You shall go ahead of the Lord
to prepare his ways before him,

To make known to his people their salvation
through forgiveness of all their sins,
the loving-kindness of the heart of our God
who visits us like the dawn from on high.

He will give light to those in darkness,
those who dwell in the shadow of death,
and guide us into the way of peace.