24 December 2010

Luke 1:67-79

"And you, child, will be called prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins." (vv. 76-77)


The name given to this song of Zechariah when it is used in church is the Benedictus (Latin for 'blessed'). In many ways this song of praise, sung by his father at John the Baptist's circumcision ceremony, operates (like the life of John himself) as a hinge between the Old and New Testaments. 

John is seen by the Gospel writers both as the last of the Hebrew prophets (Luke 1:17) and as one of the first believers in Jesus as Messiah (in John's Gospel, for example, John pronounces, "Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29)). The lamb is depicted in this 12th century 'Cloisters Cross'. 

The song opens with the traditional Hebrew blessing (the berukah) used and goes on to recite the mighty acts of God in saving the people of Israel from their enemies. In this section (vv. 68-75) there are many echoes of the Hebrew Scriptures: God's covenant love (hesed); God's remembering of his people (not a passive recollecting but an active intervening on their behalf); God's speaking through the prophets. 

From verse 76 onwards, however, the song turns from the past to the future, and from the general to the specific. Zechariah, having turned his eyes to heaven, now turns his attention to his baby son and addresses him, answering the question posed at verse 66: "You, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High". The echoes are still from the Hebrew Scriptures (Isaiah 9:6), but John's place in the story is now defined: he will go before the Lord to give knowledge of salvation to God's people. 

And on the turn of this hinge, the meaning of salvation seems to have changed. In the early part of the canticle salvation is presented as rescue from Israel's enemies. But salvation in verse 77 is now focused on the experience of the forgiveness of sins. This clearly puts us into the world of the New Testament with echoes of 2 Corinthians 4:6 (and Luke 24:46-47). On Christmas Eve this canticle prepares us for the coming of the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. 

To Ponder

What echoes of the Old Testament passages can you find in this canticle?

How do you understand salvation? To what extent is it all about forgiveness or are there other themes that are important?

At midnight, across the world tonight, Christian people will meet to remember the mighty acts of God and ask God to act again in the here and now. What are your prayers for the world tonight?

Bible notes author

The Revd Dr Jane Leach

Jane writes on ministry, pastoral supervision and pilgrimage..