It turns out that both today (Advent 2) and in two weeks (Advent 4) the lectionary readings for only these two Sundays include what are called Canticles instead of the normal Psalms we say together.
A canticle (from the Latin canticulum) is a hymn, psalm or other song of praise, possibly with words from a biblical text. In our Book of Common Prayer there are several canticles, which are actually taken from various parts of the Bible where “songs” of praise and thanksgiving were written down concerning an event of that time.
In particular, there are three canticles from the Gospel of Luke that the church once used regularly as songs or readings in the Morning or Evening Prayer services, and two of those are what we are reading in Advent 2 and 4 in place of the Psalms. Today’s reading, Canticle 16 (Luke 1:68-79), was commonly referred to as the "Benedictus" (translated to its first word “Blessed”), and is also called the “Song of Zechariah”. The other two Canticles taken from Luke are:
Canticle 15 (Luke 1:46-55), was commonly known as the “Magnificat” (translated to its first words--“My soul “magnifies”, or proclaims”), or called the "Canticle of the Virgin Mary"—which we will read in two weeks, and
Canticle 17 (Luke 2:29-32) known as the ‘Nunc dimittis” (translated to its opening words—“Now dismiss”), or “The Song of Simeon”. This one is used for a seldom celebrated feast day, each year falling on February 2nd or the nearest Sunday, of the Presentation of Jesus in the temple for a blessing by Simeon, who life he declared as complete by getting to see the baby Jesus.
Year C (this year) of the Lectionary readings is the year of Luke. In this Advent season we read from the Gospel of Luke, to learn about the stories of Elizabeth and Mary becoming pregnant with their children, John the Baptist and Jesus the Christ. These stories each have their own unique circumstances which lead to these canticles of praise.
In Luke’s Gospel today we hear about the story of John the Baptist becoming a young man and starting his truly unorthodox ministry:
“The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”
So who was this John the Baptist? We will learn a lot more about John during the Epiphany season, but Luke 1 gives us a description of John the Baptist's parents and his birth story. Zechariah, a priest of the Abijah order, and Elizabeth, a descendant of Aaron, the priestly order of the Israelites, are John’s parents. Zechariah and Elizabeth are both getting old and have no children.
Zechariah is doing his priestly duty one day and goes into the Temple to light incense. During this time, Abijah priests served in the temple once a week twice a year, there being twenty four divisions of priests. The Angel Gabriel appears to him and tells him he will soon have a son, to name him John, and to not allow him any alcoholic drinks, and that "he will be great in the sight of the Lord."
Gabriel is saying that John will be a Nazarite, which comes from the Hebrew word nazir meaning "consecrated" or "separated". A Nazarite was one who voluntarily took a vow requiring the man (or woman) to: abstain from wine, wine vinegar, grapes, raisins, intoxicating liquors and vinegar distilled from such substances; refrain from cutting the hair on one's head, and not to become impure by corpses or graves, even those of family members. (Think about what we have read about John’s wild appearance and how he lived in the desert.) In Modern Hebrew, the word "nazir" is commonly used for monks, both Christian and Buddhist - this meaning having largely displaced the original Biblical meaning
Zechariah doubts Gabriel’s foretelling (I’m thinking--he is a priest and he hears an angel and doubts this?), so Gabriel takes away his power of speech until this foretelling is fulfilled. Zechariah leaves the temple, unable to speak.
Moving ahead, Elizabeth is soon pregnant. She says "...God has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people." as infertility was often believed to be proof of disfavor with God. (Other women in the Bible we know who dealt with infertility--Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Hannah.)
Friends and neighbors come to the circumcising of the new baby and try to name him after his father Zechariah, but Elizabeth protests and Zechariah writes down that his name will be John, and he is suddenly allowed to speak again. He becomes "...filled with the Holy Spirit...", as has been his wife before him, and he sings this Canticle we read, praising God.
The first part of Zechariah's song praises the not yet born Jesus in verses 68-75:
“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.”
Foretelling and praising of the ministry of John comes in verses 76-77:
“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.”
The song switches back to the coming Jesus in verses 78-79:
“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.”
Zechariah sings of healing for the damage the world does because of sin and brokenness, because of greed and hatred and violence; he sings of a restoration of things to what they ought to be. Zechariah sings of God's forgiveness as a movement of the heart, God's heart, toward us even in our weakness and humanity. He also sees the beauty of hope and the promise of God's tender mercy, and, most of all, the promise of peace through Jesus.
Our first reading today from Malachi foretells this coming of Jesus:
“See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight--indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts….Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years.”
In our second reading from Philippians, the writer presents this notion of peace (with its attributes of joy, grace, compassion, and love):
“Constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now…for all of you share in God's grace with me…
For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus…
And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight.
Here we are, two weeks from the church’s annual remembrance of the birth of Jesus Christ (at our Christmas Eve service)--how do these readings help us today? Our readings are full of messages of hope and peace, and they remind us of the compassion and love of the God we pray to and worship. It is hard to focus on this with everything else we are dealing with during this time—the decorating, the shopping, the planning for family gatherings around the holidays, the constant secular messages of the season and arguing about whether there is a war on Christmas or not. Also, the ongoing political nonsense, the fiscal cliff, or slope, or curb! Our own financial concerns and those of our families! When we consider those beautiful words at the end of Zechariah's song, when we hear of light, of dawn breaking over us, we can't help but feel an intense longing for such light.
All of these things have importance in some way, but they are overcome by the importance of knowing that we are loved and sustained by God, and that our response to this is to be faithful people who show that love to others around us. Together, with our St. Mark’s outreach budget each year we show that love during this time—giving to support the Monte-Elma Food Bowl, the Union Gospel Mission, Children’s Advocacy Center, Camp Victory (for sexually abused girls), and several other local places that help others in need. We also have opportunities probably daily to contribute with $$ to help needy kids get Christmas presents, or to help get a special Christmas meal for a family who might not have one otherwise, or to provide some jackets or coats or sweaters or shoes for those less fortunate than us.
Find and act on some of these opportunities, and embrace this message of hope and love and share it with others, especially as you prepare yourself for the birth of Jesus. What a great way to remember the One who has come to show us how to live in peace and love, and to show us the Christ in others!