Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.”Luke 1:67-68
Through the centuries the church has sung Zechariah’s Benedictus (Luke 1:67-79), named for its first word in Latin, whenever it gathers for Matins, or Morning Prayer. You can find it in every one of our Lutheran hymnals. I checked our ELW, LBW, the Service Book and Hymnal (the old red hymnal), the Common Service Book with Hymnal (the old black hymnal). It is in them all.
Just as Mary’s song, the Magnificat, has always been part of the church’s celebration of vespers, or evening prayer, Zechariah’s song, the Benedictus, has always been part of the church’s celebration of matins, or morning prayer.
This song was first sung, of course, by an aging priest named Zechariah, eight days after the miraculous birth of his son, John the Baptist. Nine months earlier, Zechariah was privileged to serve in the Temple. Every day, at the morning and evening sacrifices, the great altar located outside the front doors of the Temple was prepared for the sacrifice of a lamb. A priest, chosen by lot, would have the honor of entering the Temple to burn incense. When the priest was finished, he would come out and give a benediction to all the people. The Levitical choir would sing a psalm, the offering on the great altar would be burned, the trumpets would sound, and all the people would fall down and worship.
A Long-Awaited Blessing
But on this day something went wrong during the liturgy. Zechariah was delayed in coming out of the Temple. The congregation waited and waited. When he finally emerged from the Holy Place, he didn’t give the Benediction. In fact, he didn’t say anything at all. Why?
Luke’s Gospel records for us what happened in the Temple that day. The angel Gabriel had appeared to Zechariah, saying to him:
“Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John … He will make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:13,17).
Because both Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, were old, Zechariah didn’t believe the angel. So Gabriel said to him, “because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur” (Luke 1:20).
So out of the Temple came a priest who could not speak. But who would, nevertheless, become the father of a great prophet.
Nine months later, at the circumcision and naming of his son, Zechariah asked for a tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” A name which literally means “graced by God.” Immediately Zechariah’s mouth was opened, and his tongue loosed. He could speak again. So what were the first words out of his mouth? A blessing. The Benedictus. Zechariah gave a blessing, but a blessing unlike those pronounced every day at the Temple. His was a blessing of thanksgiving to the Lord God for his past promises to save his people. And it was a prophetic blessing about the salvation the Lord God was about to accomplish in fulfillment of his Old Testament promises. It was a blessing, thanksgiving, homily, and hymn all rolled into one. The Benediction that Zechariah could not speak all those many months had now become the Benedictus that we sing at our Morning Prayer:
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
A Prophecy to Be Fulfilled
Zechariah’s Benedictus continues with a prophecy about his son:
“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins.”
Zechariah’s son, John, would not serve as priest at the high altar where lambs were sacrificed. Instead, he would stand at the River Jordan, point to Jesus, and say, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).
Zechariah’s song begins in the past as he remembers the holy prophets of old whose mouths were not silent. But at the birth of his son, John, and the imminent birth of Jesus, Zechariah also sang about the future—the very near future. Because of God’s tender mercy, the promised Messiah had finally come. He would redeem his people from their enemies, grant salvation by forgiving their sins, give light to all who sit in the darkness of death, and guide their feet into the way of peace. Zechariah’s Benedictus looks forward even as it looks back, both blessing and prophecy included in his timeless words.
But why do we sing Zechariah’s song in the church so often? Because it is not only Zechariah’s song. It is also our song. It is the Church’s song. With Zechariah, we give thanks to the Lord God, who has kept his promise and remembered his holy covenant. With Zechariah, we sing his words of prophecy, about the salvation and forgiveness of sins Jesus would achieve through his death and glorious resurrection. With Zechariah, we sing words whose beauty surpasses even that of our most beloved carols:
By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.
What Zechariah could not even say for so long, we now joyfully sing or pray, with the Church around the world, at the dawn of each new day. To remind ourselves that the dawn brings light, and it brings hope, and it brings peace, because it brings the steadfast love of the Lord. New every morning.
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, who looks favorably upon us all. Amen.