Commentary on Luke 1:68-79
The first chapter of Luke’s gospel is long. 80 verses long.
A bit ragged, the chapter twists and turns beginning with an initial greeting (“most excellent Theophilus”) and then telling the story of two birth announcements, one birth, one naming ceremony, a song and a prophecy. The lectionary passage for this week limits itself to Zechariah’s prophecy at the naming ceremony of the infant John the Baptist. Zechariah’s prophetic song, typically called the Benedictus, is an ironic moment in Luke’s telling. The old priest has been unable to speak for months and as he finally fulfills the angel’s demands from earlier in the chapter, he bursts like a dam. The words of prophecy pour out. I like to think that in the months when Zechariah couldn’t speak, he did a lot more thinking and listening than usual.
Part of me wants to hear Zechariah’s prophecy as an extemporaneous holler of a man finally permitted to speak. The text lends credence to this image by describing Zechariah as “filled with the Holy Spirit.” Yet, this advent, I am taken by the idea that Zechariah used his closed-mouthed-time to compose some verse on the occasion of his son’s birth. All the silence gave Zechariah time to create something to honor the occasion of something holy. Like a songwriter or a poet marking a major moment, Zechariah has composed something fitting for the beginning of John’s life. When the spirit comes upon Zechariah, his tongue is loosened, and he is given voice to debut his new song for John.
The structure of the song is typical of previous Hebrew songs of deliverance (Psalm 34; 67; 103; 113) but it also seems backward for the occasion. Zechariah begins the song with the exclamation that a deliverer has been born according to the promises of God. At his own son’s naming ceremony, Zechariah begins his song by singing about his wife’s cousin’s kid. It is a strange moment, a priest singing praise of a different child.
Some scholars have suggested that verses 76-79 are a later addition to a hymn sung by the followers of John the Baptist. The last three verses are added to switch the subject of the song from John to Jesus. The song is made all the more confusing given its strange use of verb tense. The song assumes that the savior has already been “raised up” when Jesus hasn’t been born. Zechariah’s song assumes the promises to be fulfilled without the agent of fulfillment having yet arrived. The conclusion has come before the question has been asked.
In her magnificent poem, Before the Birth of One of Her Children, Anne Bradstreet, the great colonial New England poet finds time to reflect on the end while waiting for a beginning.
All things within this fading world hath end,
Adversity doth still our joyes attend;
No ties so strong, no friends so dear and sweet,
But with death’s parting blows sure to meet.1
Pregnant, Bradstreet can’t help thinking about death. The impending birth of a child is the perfect opportunity to ruminate on the death that culminates all life. It is a natural to envision the end as you approach a beginning. Within the anxiety of the first day of class is also the possibility of graduation. Within the beginning of a new job is the question about the job’s end. So as Bradstreet swells, she ruminates on the coming death. In our imaginations, the end is never from the beginning. In our imaginations, the promise is never divorced from visions of fulfillment.
Within Luke’s chronological mashup is an important theological point about promises. Zechariah assumes that the idea that the fulfillment to God’s promises is coming, means that we can act like it is already here. Twice the song announces that Israel has been saved from its enemies (verses 71 & 74).
For Luke’s audience, the presence of war, the destruction of the temple and the daily indignities of living under occupied rule did not feel as if the promises of God had been fulfilled. Yet, Zechariah’s song announces that God is trustworthy, and the promises of God will be fulfilled. That the fulfillment is coming is an invitation to live as if it is already here. From this posture, John is given his vocation: prepare people to live into the fulfilled promise. John is responsible for helping people repent so that they might see the breaking dawn of the promise.
In the most troubling days of apartheid in in South Africa, the government began shutting down political anti-apartheid rallies. Amid this persecution, Archbishop Desmond Tutu declared that he would hold a church service instead of a political rally. Held at St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town, the service attracted worshippers from all over South Africa. It also attracted hundreds of police who surrounded the cathedral in a show of military intimidation.
As Tutu began preaching, the police entered the cathedral armed with guns and lined the walls. Some took out notebooks and began to record Tutu’s words. Tutu remained unintimidated. At one point in his sermon he turned to the police and said, “you are powerful. You are very powerful, but you are not Gods and I serve a God who cannot be mocked. So, since you have already lost, since you have already lost, I invite you come and join the winning side.” Immediately, the congregation erupted into song and dance. Faith in the coming fulfillment of the promise inspires courage to be the type of people who travel “the way of peace.”
- Anne Bradstreet, “Before the Birth of One of Her Children,” Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46450/before-the-birth-of-one-of-her-children