St. Luke offers a beautifully crafted narrative of the infancy of Jesus Christ in the first two chapters of his gospel. It’s in the days of King Herod that the angel appears first in the temple to Zechariah to tell him of the birth of John. The old priest fearfully questions the angel: “How can this be. I’m an old man and my wife is advanced in years?” He doubts and because of doubt becomes mute. For a time, he wont be able to speak.
Six months later at Nazareth, the angel appears to Mary to tell her that she “will conceive and bring forth a son and you shall name him Jesus.” Mary’s also afraid and questions the angel: “How can this be for I have no relations with a man?” But she consents to the angel’s message and goes in haste to visit Elizabeth, where she’s confirmed in her belief. Then, she sings a song of praise to God, who is “mighty and has done great things to me.”
After John’s birth, Zechariah’s speech returns and he sings his song of praise to God, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, he has come to his people and set them free.”
Zechariah’s “Benedictus” is sung in the church’s morning prayer each day as we come from night’s silence to a day that’s blessed. We shouldn’t doubt it. “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 in the way of peace.”
Every evening we pray Mary’s “Magnificat” in thanksgiving for the blessings of the day. “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…God has come to the help of his servant Israel, remembering his promise of mercy, the promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children forever.” God’s promise is forever; like Mary we rejoice in the promise now and wait for its fulfillment yet to come.
Commentators on Luke’s gospel say that Luke is probably using Jewish Christian prayers and applying them to Zechariah and Mary. The note in the New American Bible, for example, says: “ Because there is no specific connection of the canticle to the context of Mary’s pregnancy and her visit to Elizabeth, the Magnificat (with the possible exception of v 48) may have been a Jewish Christian hymn that Luke found appropriate at this point in his story.”
The Magnificat and the Benedictus belong to Mary and Zechariah, to the early Christian community. They’re also our prayers too.
Let me not doubt your promises, your tender mercies, but let me rejoice in them as Mary and Zechariah did, and look for their fulfillment, through Christ, our Lord. Amen.