Reflection on Canticle of Zechariah

Christ, Light “in the Shadow of Death,” John Paul II Says

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VATICAN CITY, OCT. 1, 2003 ( Here is a translation of John Paul II’s address at today’s general audience, which he dedicated to reflect on the Canticle of Zechariah (Luke 1:68-79).

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1. At the end of our journey through the Psalms and canticles of the Liturgy of Lauds, we want to reflect on a prayer that appears every morning at the moment of praise. It is the Benedictus, the canticle intoned by Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, when the birth of his son changed his life, removing the doubt that rendered him mute, a significant punishment for his lack of faith and praise.

Now, instead, Zechariah can celebrate the God who saves, and he does so with this hymn, referred to by the evangelist Luke in a way that certainly reflects its liturgical use within the early Christian community (see Luke 1:68-79).

The same evangelist defines it as a prophetic song, inspired by the breath of the Holy Spirit (see 1:67). We are, in fact, before a blessing that proclaims the salvific actions and the liberation offered by the Lord to his people. It is, indeed, a “prophetic” reading of history, namely, the discovery of the intimate and profound meaning of all human vicissitudes, guided by the hidden but effective hand of the Lord, which is intertwined with the weak and uncertain hand of man.

2. The text is solemn and, in the Greek original, is made up of only two sentences (see verses 68-75; 76-79). Following the introduction, characterized by a laudatory blessing, we can identify in the body of the canticle virtually three stanzas, which exalt as many themes, destined to mark the whole history of salvation: the covenant with David (see verses 68-71), the covenant with Abraham (see verses 72-75), the Baptist who introduces us to the new covenant in Christ (see verses 76-79). The whole prayer tends toward the end that David and Abraham indicate with their presence.

The vertex is summarized in a conclusive phrase: “the daybreak from on high will visit us” (verse 78). The expression, which at first glance seems paradoxical in uniting “high” and “daybreak” is, in fact, significant.

3. In fact, in the Greek original the “rising sun” is “anatole,” a word that means either the solar light which shines on our planet, or the sprouting shoot. Both images have a messianic value in biblical tradition.

On one hand, speaking of Emmanuel, Isaiah reminds us that “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;/ Upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone” (9:1). On the other hand, referring again to king Emmanuel, he describes him as “a shoot from the stump of Jesse,” namely, from the dynasty of David, a shoot enveloped by the Spirit of God (see Isaiah 11:1-2).

With Christ, therefore, the light appears that enlightens every creature (see John 1:9) and life flowers, as the evangelist John will say when uniting, precisely, these two realities: “through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race” (1:4).

4. Humanity, which dwells “in darkness and in the shadow of death” is illuminated by this radiance of revelation (see Luke 1:79). As the prophet Malachi announced, “for you who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays” (3:20). This sun will “guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:79).

We move, now, having that light as our point of reference; and our uncertain steps, which during the day often walk on dark and slippery ways, are sustained by the light of the truth that Christ sheds on the world and on history.

At this point, we would like to cede the word to a teacher of the Church, one of her Doctors, the British Bede the Venerable (seventh to eighth centuries) who in his Homily on the Birth of St. John the Baptist, commented thus on the Canticle of Zechariah: “The Lord … has visited us like a doctor does his patients, because to cure the inveterate sickness of our pride, he has offered us the new example of his humility; he has redeemed his people, because he has liberated us, who had become servants of sin and slaves of the ancient enemy, at the price of his blood — Christ found us who were lying “in darkness and the shadow of death,’ that is, oppressed by the long blindness of sin and ignorance. … He has brought us the true light of his knowledge and, banishing the darkness of error, he has shown us the sure way to the heavenly homeland. He has directed the steps of our works to make us walk in the way of truth, which he has shown us, and to make us enter the home of eternal peace, which he has promised us.”

5. Finally, drawing from other biblical texts, the Venerable Bede concluded thus, giving thanks for the gifts received: “Given that we are in possession of these gifts of the eternal goodness, dear brothers …. let us also bless the Lord at all times (see Psalm 33:2), because ‘he has visited and redeemed his people.’ May his praise be always on our lips, may we preserve his memory and proclaim the virtue of Him who has ‘called you out of darkness into his marvelous light’ (1 Peter 2:9). Let us ask him constantly for his help, so that he will preserve in us the light of knowledge that he has given us, and lead us to the day of perfection” (“Omelie sul Vangelo,” [Homilies on the Gospel Rome], 1990, pp. 464-465).

[Translation by ZENIT]

[At the end of the audience, the Holy Father gave this summary in English:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Our commentary on the Psalms and canticles from Morning Prayer concludes today with the Canticle of Zechariah, commonly known as the Benedictus. It is a prophetic canticle, in which the father of John the Baptist, indicates three events in God’s liberation of Israel: the covenant with Abraham, the covenant with David, and the new covenant with Christ. Like the “dawn from on high,” Christ gives light and guides us into the way of peace. As the Venerable Bede notes: Christ shows us “the sure way to reach our heavenly homeland.”

I offer greetings to the English-speaking visitors present today, especially those from England, Scotland, Ireland, Australia, Canada and the United States. I am pleased to offer a warm welcome and express my appreciation to the members of the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums, accompanied by His Eminence Cardinal Szoka. Upon all of you I invoke the grace and peace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

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