This is one of those relatively rare Sundays when the Psalm is replaced by a Canticle – a Bible passage whose beauty and power makes it the equivalent of poetry. The three most famous and widely used canticles all come from Luke’s Gospel, and they occur in the first two chapters, just before and after the birth of Jesus. The Magnificat -- the song of the Virgin Mary as she realizes the significance of the burden that God has given her – is the most famous, but the Benedictus which is assigned for this Sunday is no less powerful.
The context is dramatic. Zechariah is taking his turn as a priest in the temple when he is struck dumb by a powerful vision. It tells him that the son that is about to be born to him should have a name – John -- that marks him out from the family into which he will be born. When the child arrives, Zechariah’s speech returns and he breaks into this wonderful hymn of praise – a canticle that many prayer books use every day.
|John the Baptist -- Alexander Ivanov|
Both the lesson from Malachi and the accompanying Gospel make clear, however, that Zechariah is right to think that his son has a key role in the plan of salvation. John is Malachi's 'messenger who will prepare the way', truly a ‘prophet of the Most High’. His appointed task is to proclaim, in his fiery way, that an essential first step is repentance. We cannot be rescued from ‘darkness and the shadow of death’ unless first we recognize our need to be, and deeply long for light.