In the Gospel of Luke chapter 1, the priest, Zechariah, is visited by an angel when Zechariah is offering incense in the sanctuary of the Lord in Jerusalem. The angel announces the coming birth of Zechariah and Elizabeth’s child, who will become John the Baptist, the forerunner of the Messiah. Zechariah does not believe the angel’s message and is struck dumb until the child is born and Zechariah names the child “John” as the angel instructed. The angel’s words prove to be prophetic and Zechariah’s wife, Elizabeth, conceives a child in her old age. While Elizabeth is pregnant with John, she is visited by a cousin, Mary of Nazareth, who has conceived the Messiah by the Holy Spirit.
When Mary arrives at Ein Karem, the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth, Elizabeth cries out with joy for she knows then that the virgin Mary is carrying the Messiah in her womb. Mary’s words to Elizabeth become a song of praise now known as the Magnificat. This song is part of every day’s evening prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours, the prayer of the church.
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and Holy is His Name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with His Arm;
He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped His servant Israel in remembrance of His Mercy,
according to the promise He made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and his descendants forever.
Mary’s canticle not only praises God’s favor to her, but Mary is recounting God’s deeds and His attributes. Mary’s canticle is similar to the song of Hannah from the book of Samuel.
Mary relates that God’s name is holy; He is merciful; He is powerful; He overcomes the proud and the powerful and God lifts up those who are humble. God provides food for the hungry and helps Israel as He has promised to do so since the time of Abraham.
Later in the story of the Gospel of Luke when Zechariah’s son is born, Zechariah pronounces his own words of praise that are now known as Zechariah’s canticle or Benedictus. This prayer is also part of the daily liturgy and prayed every morning.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In the tender compassion of our God,
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
to guide our feet in the way of peace.
Zechariah’s song of praise is similar to Mary’s, yet there are significant differences.
Zechariah begins by blessing God for His faithfulness to the covenant God made with Abraham. Zechariah’s canticle becomes a retelling of the story of salvation from the time of Abraham through the prophets and to the present time. Zechariah details God’s promises to His chosen people: they will be able to worship their God without fear; God would save the Israelites from their enemies and show mercy to them; the Israelites will be a holy and righteous people in the sight of God.
Zechariah repeats the angel’s prophesy that the child born to him and his wife Elizabeth will be a prophet of the Most High God, much like Elijah, and will be the forerunner of the Messiah long promised to Israel. John the Baptist, the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, will not only announce that the Messiah has come, but he will show the people that the Messiah will bring salvation to Israel through the forgiveness of their sins. God’s Messiah will bring his chosen people out of darkness and death and guide them to God’s peace.
Even in the canticle of Zechariah we begin to see the coming understanding that the Messiah’s message and work will not be to destroy the nation which enslaved Israel, but to make the people righteous in the sight of God, to make of Israel a “holy people”. This understanding is different from what many in Israel believed would be the work of the Messiah even in the time of Jesus.