Commentary on Luke 1:68-79
The Song of Zechariah heralds the dawning of the light of Jesus on all who sit in darkness.
Once rendered mute on account of his doubt, the father of John is now the prophet who proclaims the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel. His is a song of Advent, as we wait for the light that has already come and is still yet to come.
Before the angel Gabriel, an official emissary of God (see Daniel 8:16), appeared to Mary, he came to Zechariah, and, as the multiple allusions to Hebrew Bible persons and event show, repeats the promises God first made to Abraham. Elizabeth and Zechariah’s advanced age at John’s conception is a clear parallel between these blessed parents and Sarah and Abraham (1:7 and 18), as is the shame of Elizabeth’s “barrenness” (1:25; see Genesis 16:4).
Zechariah is in a priestly order; Elizabeth is a descendent of Aaron. Thus both of John’s parents are the descendants of priests, and Elizabeth of the first priest (Exodus 40:12-15). Gabriel’s promise that John will be filled with “the spirit and power of Elijah” (1:17) clearly identifies John as a prophet who will turn the people to repentance (Malachi 4:5-6). Zechariah’s doubt at Gabriel’s words (1:18-20) parallels Sarah’s laughter at the annunciation of Isaac (Genesis 18:12-15).
The immediate circumstances of Zechariah’s song continue this theme of the fulfillment of Hebrew Bible promises and prophecies. When Gabriel tells him of the coming birth of John, Zechariah doesn’t believe, and Gabriel renders him mute “until the day these things occur” (1:20). Eight days after John’s birth, Zechariah and Elizabeth take him to be circumcised, following the divine command to Abraham in Genesis 17:12.
When the time comes for the child to be named, Elizabeth, to the confusion of the assembled, insists that he be given the name that Gabriel foretold (1:13, 60). The people turn to Zechariah, who writes on a tablet “His name is John” (1:63); “Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God” (1:64). The prophecy of Gabriel is fulfilled, and Zechariah himself is thus empowered to speak prophetic words.
The Song of Zechariah, traditionally known as “The Benedictus” after the first word in the Latin translation, is composed of two parts: verses 68-75 and verses 76-79. The first part is rife with allusions to Hebrew Bible passages; these allusions are again meant to underscore for the author’s Jewish-Christian readers that the promises and prophecies of Israel are coming to fulfillment in Jesus, and that John is the prophet who paves the way.
These verses are similar to psalms of praise for God’s deliverance of Israel (see Psalm 34, 67, 103, and 113). God has raised up “a mighty savior” (1:69) for Israel, literally “a horn of salvation,” recalling passages like Psalm 132:17, in which a savior comes from the line of David, Israel’s greatest king. This savior is the fulfillment of prophecies (1:70) and of God’s merciful covenant, “the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham” (1:73; see Micah 7:20), that Israel would be saved from her enemies (1:71).
Verses 76-79 are thought to be an addition to an earlier hymn sung by followers of John. Here Zechariah identifies John as “the prophet of the Most High” (1:76), who will prepare the way for the Lord (see Malachi 3:1) by turning the people to repentance (1:76-77). Thus the child born to Zechariah and Elizabeth plays a crucial role in the deliverance of the promise of salvation that God made long ago. Emphasis in the closing verses of Zechariah’s song is on Jesus as the light to all who live in darkness.
Again key Hebrew texts are recalled, texts that promise liberation from the darkness of captivity (see Psalm 107:10; Isaiah 9:2, 42:5-7, and 60:1-3). The reference to Isaiah 42 is especially notable. There the servant of God is “a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison with those who sit in darkness.” By alluding to this passage in Isaiah, the author is proclaiming in Zechariah’s prophetic voice the divine promise that through Israel all nations of the world would be blessed. The “dawn from on high [that] will break upon us” (1:78) arises from the house of David to guide all feet in the way of peace (1:79).
On this third Sunday of Advent, Zechariah’s song is very much ours. We see the faint light on the horizon, and we await the full, dazzling light of God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ. We find ourselves now in-between, standing in that moment of the already and the not-yet. The light has dawned but doesn’t seem yet to have reached the deepest darknesses inside and around us.
The truth is, that moment of already and not-yet is where we find ourselves all the time. To live the life of a disciple of Christ is to live always in Advent time, knowing that the light has come and awaiting the light that has yet to shine in its fullest measure. Advent time is anticipatory time, and yet it is also frustrating, sometimes discouraging. The dawning of the light must sustain us as we continue on, in our waiting and in our living, and sometimes the wait for the rays of Jesus’ light upon our faces seems awfully long.
We may, with Zechariah, doubt that such a thing is possible. But also with Zechariah, we praise God for the dawn, seeing in it just the first shimmering of the peace in whose light we already bask, even as we wait for its full radiance.