New Testament Canticles 1: Benedictus

Gabriel announcing John's birth too Zachariah, St Augustine Gospels (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, Parker Library MS 286), ca. 597

Gabriel announcing John’s birth too Zachariah, St Augustine Gospels (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, Parker Library MS 286), ca. 597

Last week, a small group study of which I am a member touched briefly on the three New Testament Canticles from Luke’s infancy narrative, all known by their opening word(s) in Latin — the Benedictus, Magnificat, and Nunc Dimittis; that is, the songs of Zachariah, Mary the Virgin, and Simeon. Seasonally appropriate, as it turns out!

These three canticles, these biblical songs, are the only New Testament canticles in the round of daily prayer (traditionally; I know that some have made new canticles from such passages as Philippians 2:5ff.). The rest are Psalms or selections from the prophets. Another little fact about them is that, apparently, they maintain traces of Semitic grammar and style in the Greek, demonstrating that they are actual translations and not wholecloth creations of Luke’s.

The question that arose at the study was about the way these canticles interact with their historical circumstances. Although my answer looked mainly at Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, allow me to begin today with Benedictus, the first New Testament canticle of the day, recited or sung at Morning Prayer.

BLESSED be the Lord God of Israel; / for he hath visited and redeemed his people;
And hath raised up a mighty salvation for us, / in the house of his servant David;
As he spake by the mouth of his holy Prophets, / which have been since the world began;
That we should be saved from our enemies, / and from the hands of all that hate us;
To perform the mercy promised to our forefathers, / and to remember his holy covenant;
To perform the oath which he sware to our forefather Abraham, / that he would grant us
That we being delivered out of the hands of our enemies / might serve him without fear,
In holiness and righteousness before him, / all the days of our life.

AND thou, child, shalt be called the Prophet of the Highest: / for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways;
To give knowledge of salvation unto his people / for the remission of their sins;
Through the tender mercy of our God; / whereby the day-spring from on high hath visited us;
To give light to them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death, / and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

I have to admit that this is the New Testament Canticle with which I have the most difficulty. Nonetheless, the context of all three is the same: the ascendancy of Rome, the Mediterranean a Roman lake (Mare nostrum — our sea), the rule of the dynasty of Herod including his magnificent new Temple in Jerusalem; varying levels of response to Rome from apathy to rebellion to survival to collaboration; Jewish people scattered throughout the Near East and Mediterranean. People looking for the coming of Messiah.

And Zachariah, an old priest who gives fathers a promised son (not the Messiah!).

John the Baptist is the beginning of the fulfilment of YHWH’s prophecies — their ultimate fulfilment is his Kinsman, Jesus of Nazareth (‘For all the promises of God in him are yea, and in him Amen, unto the glory of God by us.’ -2 Cor. 1:20 KJV).

Zachariah represents the hopes and fears of a nation:

That we should be saved from our enemies, / and from the hands of all that hate us

and

That we being delivered out of the hands of our enemies / might serve him without fear

Perhaps I, personally, have the most trouble with this canticle because, quite obviously, neither the people of Judaea nor the Christian Church have been saved from their physical enemies (think immediately of AD 70 and 135 for the Jews [besides the terrible history of Jew hatred in Europe into the 20th century], plus the various persecutions of Romans then Persians then Muslims then Communists, et al., for the Christians).

Then again, I’m schooled enough in the methods of patristic exegesis to wonder if that’s ultimately what the canticle means (even if, perhaps, that’s what Zachariah meant). Because he soon transitions into the remission of sins and repentance. And, as we are reminded by John Cassian, are not the true enemies of God’s followers those who tempt us to sin? He also argues, in a line of Stoic logic, that the only evil that befalls is our own sin; actions of others are not truly evil unless we allow them to harm us and make us sin. Whether you follow the second line of argument, the first is brilliant.

We are saved from our enemies — passions, demons, sins, death; are these not those who truly hate us? And, delivered out of their hands, can we not truly serve him without fear? The stories I hear from the persecuted church tell me — Yes. Those men and women do not fear death.

And why? Because they have received

knowledge of salvation unto his people / for the remission of their sins;
Through the tender mercy of our God; / whereby the day-spring from on high hath visited us;
To give light to them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death, / and to guide our feet into the way of peace

The Kingdom of God is not of this world, and thus is for all this world. It is a Gospel worth preaching.

~ MJH ~

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3 thoughts on “New Testament Canticles 1: Benedictus

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