A Reflection on the Canticle of Zechariah

The following is a reflection on the Canticle of Zechariah (Luke 2:68–79), which one says as part of Morning Prayer. The meditation proceeds line by line, and usually phrase by phrase. It is based on the Latin, which I wanted to memorize for the historical influence of the text, but the Latin is so bite-sized that anyone can follow along. A fairly literal translation accompanies each line.

Benedictus Dominus Deus Israel, quia visitavit et fecit redemptionem plebi suae…

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and made redemption for his people…

The Canticle of Zechariah begins, in the Latin, with a phrase that challenges contemporary readers and auditors. The alliterative /d/, with its direct, definite, and somewhat dark associations – -dictus; Dominus; Deus – asserts the preeminence of the God of Israel. He is blessed and to be blessed in ceaseless, rhythmically repetitive praise and worship. The incantatory quality of the phrase raises the spectre that such worship may be unthinking, may unreflectively reify and uphold an authority through adoration, devotion, and blind adherence. What could signify this thoughtlessness more thoroughly than reciting a song in an unknown language, one associated with an old Church and ancient, organized power?

Yet this Power has visited and has made redemption for his people. Such a Power is revealed as personal, and his actions call into question what the reader or listener might think qualify as power and authority. At the very least, he identifies a people as his own. He has redeemed them, whatever that means.

…et erexit cornu salutis nobis in domo David pueri sui….

…and raised a horn of salvation for us in the house of David his son….

More activity: building or raising up. What has been raised up is a horn used as a call to battle, which stands metonymically for success in battle. (We might be more familiar with the horn in “cornucopia,” the horn of plenty, which retains the sense of martial success.) The horn of salvation is for us, for me (pro me in Bonhoeffer’s excellent Lutheran emphasis). The Latin knits the two together with a repeated ending: salutis; nobis. Salutis gives us a genitive of description, a certain kind of belonging-to, that moves outward to a dative (indirect object, seeking an object) in nobis: for us, to us.

This activity happens in the house of David. It begins in the people of Israel, called by God from the time of Israel, with whom he established a covenant so that they may be a blessing to all people, and to all of creation. Pueri sui echoes plebi suae, but it’s different too: more particularized, moving from the many to the one; and because pueri, “of his son,” typologically anticipates “of His Son.” This particularizing description is even more real in His Son, in whom and from whom, all things derive their being.

…sicut locutus est per os sanctorum, qui a saeculo sunt, prophetarum eius…

…as was said through the mouths of the saints through the ages, his saints…

First we had plebi suae, then we had pueri sui, now we have prophetarum eius: his people, his son, his prophets. God has not left his people to their own devices. He has followed through with increasing particularization on what he had promised. The opening phrase with its internal rhyme, “sicut locutus,” vivifies this subcutaneous assuredness: it was spoken, it has happened, it always going to happen, for with God speaking and being are one. The saints have borne witness to the beneficent plans of God throughout the ages. His prophets have always spoken, however veiled the language, of the coming of a final and complete salvation.

…salutem ex inimicis nostris, et de manu omnium, qui oderunt nos….

…salvation from our enemies, and out of the hand of all, who hate us…

One doesn’t need to know much Latin to appreciate the effect here. One can glean the point almost as well from an appreciation of an English writer who likes complex syntax. The salutem in question here has been in the offing since the first line: fecit redemptionem, he has made redemption. But it would be somewhat misleading to think of the construction here as involving deferral, or of our being in danger of getting lost in a myriad of details, for in the Latin one expects the most important information to come at the end of a sentence. In Latin, that information is usually the action, the verbum. So important does Latin consider the word for the action to be that it considers it simply to be “the word”: verbum, from which English gets “verb,” is in Latin “word.” We don’t have a verb in salutem, but we do have a fulfilment, like a revelation that is in no way a diminution or a putting off. First we had a reminder of who had spoken of the visiting, the making, and the raising; now we have, in a nutshell, what it is they were speaking of: salutem, salvation, specifically salvation from our enemies, and from all who hate us.

We have been saved out of the hand (de manu) of all…who hate us. In the version of the text I am following, a comma appears after omnium, all. In this construction, we are not only saved out of the hand of those who hate us: we are saved out of the hands of all, and the “all” are characterized as those who hate us, qui oderunt nos. This is tricky terrain. A good theology will not allow us to withdraw from the world or to deny our kinship with all other people. We are all sinners, and Christ died for all. We are all redeemed, however it may be that that redemption has not been actualized in the lives of so many. At the same time, to identify with the Church as part of the people of God is to acknowledge that those who do not so identify themselves in some way and to a certain extent identify with those who hate us, because they hate God.

In a Canadian context, Gretzky’s words to the media when he was the general manager of the Canadian Olympic team that won in Salt Lake City are relevant. He reminded them that, in the hockey world, all the other nations hate Canada. He wasn’t asking for pity, he was calling on his team to steel themselves for action. Martial metaphors are always difficult to negotiate, in part because they can become dangerously over- and misapplied. Nonetheless, we have enemies (inimicis nostris), who hate us. It is unwise to assume bland congeniality as we bear witness to what has been done for us. (At some level, we cannot help but to bear such witness). It is equally foolish to take the task of protecting and saving ourselves into our own hands.

… ad faciendam misericordiam cum patribus nostris, et memorari testamenti sui sancti…

…to the making of mercy with our fathers, and the remembering of his holy covenant…

To the making of mercy towards or with, cum, our fathers. Never mind the issues we may have with other people or with the spiritual forces of darkness. God has done work to effect the giving of mercy (which we recall in a special way in this Pope Francis’s Year of Mercy) to our fathers, into which he magnanimously draws his people as co-participants. As we confess our salvation, we stand in this his work of making mercy, this tradition. Salvation comes to us personally in the salvation history that God is effecting through his calling of Abraham, the formation of Israel, and the obedience of Christ as the fulfilment of that to which Israel has always been called. This is his holy covenant that is remembered, et memorari testamenti sui sancti. The form of the Latin phrase reinforces the solidity of the covenant with the stolid repetitiveness of the ending of each word in it. His covenant is sacrosanct; it is not forgotten. The Bible is full of God making a covenant with his people: “come, let us reason together” (Isa. 1:18); “[Christ] is not ashamed to call them brothers” (Heb. 2:11). From the saints of old, not least those who prophesied the coming of Christ, to the last sinner to respond to the Gospel, God’s covenant with his people is remembered through the revelation of the Saviour who is Christ.

…iusiurandum, quod iuravit ad Abraham patrem nostrum, daturum se nobis….

…that it should be done, what he swore to Abraham our father, giving it to us…

More emphasis on the seamless connectedness of past and future, of commandment and execution. In an early example of meaningful repetition, patrem nostrum echoes patribus nostris, now with the emphasis on the singular father, Abraham, as opposed to the plural earlier generations of Israelites. It reminds one of the intimacy of God’s relationship with Abraham, and the profound importance of the nature of Abraham’s response to what was commanded and promised. St Paul focuses on the meaning of that receptivity when he writes of how God credited the patriarch’s belief as righteousness (Rom. 4:22). The phrasing is ambiguous. “That it should be given to us,” daturum se nobis, shifts attention from the past to the future and to us. The context enfolds the discussion of salvation, and so points to Jesus primarily as the antitype (the one to whom all biblical types or foreshadowings point) of all promises and all gifts.

…ut sine timore, de manu inimicorum liberati, serviamus illi…

…so that, free from fear, liberated from the hand of (our) enemies, we might serve him…

Sine timore, without fear. Regardless of who the enemies are, we can work in the world, can live, and move, and have our being, without fear. More specifically, we can serve illi, that one. It’s almost a code word, a pointing to an open secret. Illi is that one who is at the heart of the salvation in question, the one who personally visited and made salvation, who is the horn of salvation, who is the son of David, as the genealogies of the Evangelists remind us, who is the one spoken of by the prophets. We can serve that one. The whole phrase is in the subjunctive: ut takes the subjunctive mood. God has created the conditions of possibility whereby we might serve that one.

He has done so by liberating us from the hand of our enemies: de manu inimicorum liberati. The passage delivers this truth with a passive construction, as part of the theme of hiddenness. Earlier we learned that salvation is from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. Now, those two realities are combined: we are delivered out of the hand of our enemies.

Serviamus comes from the same root as servus, which means not merely “servant” but “slave.” We serve properly as “slaves to righteousness” (Rom. 6:18). We have been rescued from our enemies, in fact rescued from death, as we shall see. We had no other option, no “neutral” life; to serve illi as slaves is only right and just, yet still a privilege and an honour, given that he is the Lord of life, the Creator whose service is perfect freedom. Even apart from the enemies from whom and from which we have been freed, we would have no idea of what freedom looks like except through our response to our Creator and participation in life. I say this as if there perhaps were some sort of neutral “life” after all, between being besieged by enemies and responding to illi, when in fact all apparent realities that keep us from such commitment will be known in their lack as the hand of enemies. There is no life apart from his life.

… in sanctitate et iustitia coram ipso omnibus diebus nostris.

…in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

With this phrase, we come to the end of the first of two sections of the canticle. The cadence of the phrasing, and especially that of the last three words, conveys the sense of repeated action in lasting security. Omnibus diebus has a rhythm like relaxed breathing, the final s’s easy exhalation. It’s a sort of fairytale ending: …and they lived happily ever after. This is the natural state of the believer and of the community of all who give their allegiance to Dominus Deus Israel, to serve illi in holiness and righteousness, to live coram ipso, before the face of that very one, that same one, who has effected our salvation, shown himself more powerful than any enemy, who has invited us into an almost unbelievable story at the centre of which is Christ’s incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension.

Et tu, puer, propheta Altissimi vocaberis, praeibis enim ante faciem Domini parare vias eius…

You, boy, will also be called a prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways…

Things really get exciting now, linguistically. The canticle divides into two halves. In the first, Zechariah has been blessing God; now he addresses his newborn son, who will become John the Baptist. The address goes from the third person to the second, evoking the intimacy of I-Thou relations (on which Martin Buber has written), but of course also that of a father with his son. In this case, he not only commits him to God, but acknowledges a work and a calling already effected by Him. If there were a couple of echoes of previous phrases in the first lines, the second half explodes with interlacing. At the outset, God’s work in the house of David his son, pueri sui, was cited. Now it is simply “you, boy” who will take his place within that grand narrative. The earlier references recalled the past; now Zechariah looks to the future: vocaberis is in the future tense, a prophecy of what his son will be: a prophet like the others, prophetarum eius. (Later, it will be matched by visitabit.) The praeibis reinforces this orientation: you will go before. The Latin conveys a double sense of preceding: it’s present in the prefix prae-, reinforced with the word ante; ante faciem also recalls coram ipso. John will be before the Lord both as a harbinger and attitudinally. Our English word “prepare” includes that suffix prae- and combines it with the verb that now appears in the infinitive form, parare, to prepare. Their separation in the Latin (prae-…parare) performs the gap, the anticipation and the fulfilment that leads to another excursion with a future anticipation: vias eius, his ways, the ways of the Lord. These are manifold and diverse, as different as the obedience of each one of us, as we find our being in belonging to the Way, an excursion that is at the same time an arrival and a rest, an arrival and discovery that initiates a life of seeking and hoping. Augustine said it well: Let us so seek as if we were about to find, and so find as if we were about to seek.

…ad dandam scientiam salutis plebi eius in remissionem peccatorum eorum…

…to the giving of knowledge of salvation to his people in the remission of their sins…

I found this line difficult to memorize at first and had to break it down into its ten words and treat it like a list. Which, in a way, is what it is. Virtually each word is packed with significance. Primarily, the line says only one thing, a very important and specific theological truth: salvation comes to God’s people through the forgiveness of their sins. This is what his people need: forgiveness of their sins, corporately and individually. These days we use the word “remission” virtually only in connection with good news about cancer treatment. Why not let that metaphor cross back over to remissionem as the work of Christ overpowering the cancer in our lives. We shouldn’t take this picture too far, but let’s have a little fun with the Latin: this remission is the “science” (scientiam) of salvation. Actually, what John the Baptist will give (ad dandam) to the people to whom he preaches the gospel will be scientiam salutis, knowledge of salvation, the salvation that is being effected right before their very eyes in the life of Jesus. The latter comes from Nazareth, is one of them, and lives as one of them, a true Jew and keeper of covenant, their (and our) moral exemplar, to whom God will say, “you are my beloved Son, in you I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17). So it’s a knowledge of work done, but a knowledge imbued with participatory learning too, that hands-on knowledge that comes as one purposes to walk in his ways. It’s salvation for plebi eius, his people, whoever they may be. The context has shifted slightly now in this, yet another echo of a previous phrase. Whereas earlier plebi suae seemed to refer relatively unambiguously to Israel, (though a good Pauline theology has probably enlarged the reader’s understanding of “Israel”), the second reference to plebi more strongly urges the emphasis on the Saviour as the giver of the identity of the people. They are his people, in virtue of the forgiveness of their (eorum)sins, remissionem peccatorum eorum. The cadence of that last phrase leaves no doubt about the inclusiveness and the effectiveness of what it covers: all their sins. The salvation on offer is effective and complete. We could have closure here.

…per viscera misericordiae Dei nostri, in quibus visitabit nos oriens ex alto…

…through the bowels of the mercy of our God, in which the east will visit us from above…

The word viscera readers may recognize in the modern word “visceral.” We sometimes talk about having a visceral reaction to something. The word has associations with immediate, coming from the core of our being, perhaps even a reaction that bypasses our thought processes and so has negative associations. The relevant line, in its entirety, is translated in the NRSV as “ By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us.” That’s fine, but it doesn’t convey the Latin precisely. The canticle wasn’t written in Latin, so that’s also fine! Nonetheless, if one wants to make sense of the Latin, there’s work to be done. Viscera is in the plural. The word refers to the inner organs, the heart and stomach, the guts. I’m reminded of C.S. Lewis’s essay in The Abolition of Man, “Men Without Chests,” where he distinguishes the chest as the province of what makes man distinctly man, neither a mere beast driven by appetites, nor a machine, with the mind as a calculator. The notion of “emotional intelligence” approximates this in-between notion, but for various complex historical reasons in a Western context tends to pit the emotions against rationality. In this phrase it is as though emotional intelligence were a different form of intelligence, so that the notion of intelligence has become a metaphor or, worse, merely an empty cipher. Lewis’s notion of the chest follows the hebraic tradition of an embodied wisdom, what another commentator once characterized as “the knowledge of God’s world and the knack of fitting into it.”

We’re not quite there yet, though. John the Baptist will be a prophet of the Most High, giving knowledge of salvation to his people in the remission of their sins per (through) the viscera of mercy. The guts of mercy are not our guts. The word invites the image of a body. If God has a body, salvation comes to his people out of his guts of mercy. God has a visceral reaction to his people’s need of salvation. Genitives (misericordiae, of mercy) are notoriously ambiguous. The viscera misericordiae could be the guts of a body that is itself entirely of mercy. And of course Christ is God incarnate.

These grammatical details are relevant to understanding the rest of the line as well, at least in the Latin. For the next phrase includes a relative pronoun also in the plural, in quibus (in which). As in the previous line (in remissionem), in can probably safely be translated as through, though “in” is useful too. “In” keeps us mentally and spiritually in the viscera, in the guts of God’s mercy. This entire bodily metaphor also connotes darkness. The darkness of God is the source of our forgiveness and our salvation. It is the place where our sins are plunged into the darkness of forgivenness. They do not disappear into a black void, like some pod released from a spacecraft (still perhaps out there somewhere, perhaps to return in a sequel as some alien). God takes them into himself, into his body. This darkness of the innerness of God is more important than our darkness of brokenness and loss, of wandering around on some battlefield after dark, vanquished, bereft of hope, surrounded by the dead and left for dead ourselves. Both kinds of darkness are at play here. Through the viscera the oriens ex alto (the east from on high) will visit us. This is why Christian churches in the West are pointed to the east. They are oriented to Jerusalem, where Christ effected salvation; that city is also a stand-in for the heavenly Jerusalem (Rev. 21:10). Here, it is the east that is functioning metonymically, that is, as a part that represents the whole, which is the mercy of God, salvation, God himself (which returns us to the ambiguity of the genitive in the common phrase “mercy of God”).

There are more echoes here too, more reverberations, which increasingly take on the character of resonances with the depths of creation and of the Creator. Dei nostri recalls earlier references to our God, and brings close again the God who momentarily withdrew in the previous line, when he became the God of his people (plebi eius), leaving the reader or auditor perhaps momentarily wondering if he or she shares in that identity. Further along, the promise that the east will visit (visitabit) us in the entrails of mercy echoes the opening line. The first phrases tell us that God is to be blessed, for he has visited salvation on his people (visitavit). Aurally, the /v/ and the /b/ sounds are very difficult to distinguish. In the kingdom of God, where the one Christ-event is the centre of reality, past and future times take on their proper meaning; they become richly ambiguous.

…illuminare his qui in tenebris et in umbra mortis sedent, ad dirigendos pedes nostros in viam pacis.

…to illumine these who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to direct our feet in the way of peace.

Illuminare: to shed light on, to give light to. One cannot really say “enlighten,” because that word now has a thin, enfeebled meaning. The light that God gives illumines our whole life situation, providing hope, showing us our lives for what they really are, making plain next steps. In context, it sounds like this illumination is specified for those who lie in darkness and in the shadow of death, as if there were others who do not. Perhaps we might say that the first benefit of illumination is to recognize that we are in such dire circumstances.

The closing phrases reverberate twice more with what has gone before. Ad dirigendos pedes nostros recalls ad dandam scientiam salutis syntactically as activities prophetically associated with the life of John. Both enfold an ambiguity. The first activity seems more naturally in the first instance to apply to John. He it is who will go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways, giving knowledge of salvation. However, the giving of that knowledge can also refer to what he, the Lord, will do as he goes along his ways. Now, in this latter phrase, where the oriens ex alto stands in for the visitation of God in Christ, the illumination and the directing of our feet in the way of peace would seem more naturally to refer to the work of Christ in the first instance. Yet John is still the one Zechariah is addressing directly in this second part: if the baptist is the one giving knowledge, he is also the one directing the feet of the people of God into the way of peace. John will quite literally urge people to follow Christ, to watch him, to learn from him, to model their lives on his as the model for the nation of Israel. Yet it is also true that only as our hearts are turned again and again to Christ, converted to him, can we learn to walk in the way of peace.

There is a comforting directedness in the repeated declined endings of the phrases: dirigendos, pedes, nostros, as if our feet were already being directed in the way that they should go. There is also a final unity between vias eius and viam pacis. All of the Lord’s ways are the way of peace. To be with the Lord along the ways of life is always already to have arrived at our final destination of being with the Lord and being both at peace and peacemakers in the world.

Norm Klassen

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