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Songs of the Spirit - The Song of Zechariah

Written by Clare Hayns, posted on Sunday, March 7, 2021

Songs of the Spirit: The Benedictus

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
    for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
    by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
    the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
    to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Luke 1. 76-79

One of the best things about living at Christ Church is being able to get up early in the morning and go for a walk in the meadows before it fills up with joggers, dog walkers and people taking their daily legally sanctioned strolls. It is gloriously peaceful and if I can get up early enough to see the sun rising I’m reminded of the promise in the Benedictus that ‘the dawn from on high will break upon us’.

The Benedictus, the Song of Zechariah, has been said or sung in early morning worship since it was introduced by Benedict of Nursia in the sixth century. It is a song of blessing (‘Benedictus’ means blessing in Latin) and hope. But it is a song that also speaks of times of hardship. It begins, ‘Blessed by the Lord the God of Israel; who has come to his people and set them free’ - we are reminded that God’s people were once enslaved, had enemies and longed to be able to worship God in freedom. 

Zechariah’s song sprung out of a time of hopelessness. The Bible tells us that he was an elderly priest who, with his wife Elizabeth, was ‘getting on in years’. They had no children. The priests would take on a week’s duty in the temple where they officiated at services: a bit like being Canon-in-Residence in our Cathedral. One day whilst in the temple Zechariah encountered an angel who promised him a son, to be called John. He was told he would have ‘joy and gladness’, that the child ‘will be great in the sight of the Lord’. (Luke 1.14)

But Zechariah didn’t believe the angel.

“How will I know that this is so?” he asked. “For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” (Luke 1.18)

From that moment he became mute, unable to speak at all. He remained silent throughout the entire pregnancy and didn’t speak until his baby was eight days old. It was only when he announced, ‘His name is John’ that his tongue was freed and he began to sing his song of blessing and hope.

One reason the Benedictus is said every morning is that in monastic times there would be a time of ‘great silence’ between Compline and Matins. Saying the Benedictus is a reminder that we, like Zachariah can break our nightly silence with praise.

Within the Benedictus there are great themes of hope and salvation.

There is hope for the salvation of the people of Israel: ‘a mighty saviour’ is on his way. There is hope for Zechariah’s son John who will prepare the way for Jesus with his father’s prophetic blessing upon him. And there is hope for all people: for each one of us.

‘The dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.’

A few days ago a dense morning fog descended on Oxford. You could hardly see a thing. Just the vague outlines of people walking in meadows. It was one of those days when you could only just make out a few steps ahead. Yet later in the day the fog lifted, clear and beautifully bright.

This seems an apt metaphor for our times. Perhaps we are deep in the fog, in the gloom, not knowing what the next steps are? Many people are struggling to keep going and to keep positive. The future seems unclear. What can we plan? When will be able to gather with our friends and family? We are still in uncertain times.

The Benedictus reminds us that we can have hope and that the dawn shall break.

The light shall shine in the darkness.

Hope is different to optimism – which is about blindly believing things will be better.

Emily Dickinson writes:

“Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all."

Often hope is delicate and very fragile, sometimes just a flickering candle, a clump of daffodils, a ‘thing with feathers’.

Hope is rooted in trust. Trust that God has brought God’s people out of the shadows in the past, and will do so again.  

A trust that the fog is not the only weather, and it shall lift.

That the dawn from on high shall break upon us.

This is an edited extract of a sermon given by Revd Clare Hayns on 7 February 2021.