The Canticle of Zechariah (Luke 1:67-80)

So yesterday I tried to give you the idea that a seemingly innocuous passage of scripture is really telling us that something big is going on.  And, I said, today we would start to know what that something is.

Today’s reading is the Canticle of Zechariah.  One of my all-time favorites.

If we remember the biblical timeline leading up to this point then we recall that nine months ago the Angel Gabriel told Zechariah that he and Elizabeth would have a son.  Zechariah didn’t believe Gabriel and asked for a sign (“how will I know this”).  To paraphrase Gabriel, he more or less said: ‘here’s your sign; you’ll be mute until everything I said happens.’

So, Zechariah has been speechless for nine months and these are the first words out of his mouth.


The Canticle of Zechariah.


67 Then Zechariah his father, filled with the Holy Spirit, prophesied, saying:

68* “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, for he has visited and brought redemption to his people.k

69* He has raised up a horn for our salvation within the house of David his servant,l

70 even as he promised through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old:

71 salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us,m

72 to show mercy to our fathersn and to be mindful of his holy covenanto

73 and of the oath he swore to Abraham our father,p and to grant us that,

74 rescued from the hand of enemies, without fear we might worship him

75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.q

76 And you, child, will be called prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord* to prepare his ways,r

77 to give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins,

78 because of the tender mercy of our Gods by which the daybreak from on high* will visit ust

79 to shine on those who sit in darkness and death’s shadow, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

There is an ancient slogan that says “the translator is a traitor” because a translator truly has an impossible job.  She must either betray the content & meaning (possibly even mangling the beauty of the original language), or she must betray the language that she is translating to.  I think every good translator tries to carefully walk the tightrope of simultaneously doing justice to meaning, beauty, syntax, etc. without harming too much one attribute of the text in favor of any other attribute.  Today’s reading is one of those times when, in my opinion, the NABRE translators placed a greater emphasis put on the literal meaning of the words and the poetry of the canticle had to suffer. (Mind, you.  I’m not translator and the NABRE translators are excellent scholars.  I have no credentials to criticize their translation.  Nevertheless, I am comfortable saying that I prefer one translation to another.)

The canticle of Zechariah is one of my absolute favorites, but I am much more acquainted with (memorized) a different translation.  I find this translation more poetic, more beautiful.  I include it here, for your benefit, and will also offer my comments alongside the verses of the canticle.

Canticle of Zechariah

What catches my attention
Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel;
he has come to his people and set them free.He has raised up for us a mighty savior,
born of the house of his servant David.
In raising up a savior from the house of David, Zechariah isn’t talking about his son John (David is in Judah’s lineage and John the Baptist is in Levi’s lineage).Zechariah is telling us that the birth of John announces the imminent arrival of the long awaited Messiah.  Zechariah is telling us that God sets his people free by the birth of the Messiah.
Through his holy prophets he promised of old
that he would save us from our enemies,
from the hands of all who hate us.He promised to show mercy to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant.
God remembers (he is mindful of) his merciful promise to all of the Israelite ancestors that He would save them from all of their enemies and from all who hate them.  The list of those that are enemies and that hate Israel is long indeed.  Since the exodus from Egypt the Israelites have known thousands of years of struggle but only a few short years (measured in decades) of peace.The promise of freedom from enemies is finally at hand.  This brings a great sense of relief.
This was the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
to set us free from the hands of our enemies,
free to worship him without fear,
holy and righteous in his sight
all the days of our life.
I find this one of the most penetrating phrases in scripture.  This oath doesn’t just apply to Zechariah and the Jews, but it applies to you and me too.  We are free to worship God without fear, HOLY and RIGHTEOUS in HIS SIGHT for all of the days of our life!  Pray about this.  Pray in thanksgiving that we can worship God and be found holy and righteous in His site.  Pray about what our response should be.
You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,
to give his people knowledge of salvation
by the forgiveness of their sins.
Again, this is verse should grab your attention.  Yes, when Zechariah says “You, my child” we can imagine him tenderly looking at the babe in his arms.But we must also remember that in our baptism we became sharers in the prophetic office too.  Yes, that’s right; we are prophets too.  How much more meaning does this verse have if you image that God is quietly whispering in your ear?  He is saying to you “You, my child will be called the prophet of the most high. You will go before my Son to prepare his way by preaching the Gospel – the good news of salvation.”In a sense, we all Share John’s prophetic ministry to prepare the way for Christ in the world.  We can also be comforted knowing that God gives us the grace necessary to answer this call!Again, pray in thanksgiving and pray about how you should respond to the freedom and this obligation.
In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.
A new day is dawning that drives away darkness and death and guides humanity into the way of Shalom. This Hebrew word is literally translated as peace, but it means more.  It means a peace that is complete; and offers overall welfare; a kind of deep and abiding tranquility.


So, after nine months of speechlessness Zechariah is essentially saying: Praise God!  At long, long, last God is giving His people the Messiah who will do away with hatred, darkness, and death, and bring holiness and righteousness to humanity and who will give us the gifts of light, of life, and of peace.

Today’s pericope also includes this verse about John the Baptist saying:

80 The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the desert until the day of his manifestation to Israel.u

We could say quite a bit about this too, but I leave that for you and your prayers.

Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition© 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

One Comment

  1. Ed February 11, 2016 Reply

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