The Canticle of Zechariah is one of the standard liturgical texts prayed by Catholic clergy and religious, and many lay people, each day. It is a text I quite enjoy, though I must confess that it can appear - particularly when one is tired or distracted - as a bit disjointed, a series of platitudes strung together. Today I'd like to propose a method for digging deeper into it.
In the Hebrew scriptures, repetition is a frequently used literary device. Anyone who has seen the canticle in Daniel chapter 3 (prayed on Sunday morning of Week 1) will have a sense of this:
Every shower and dew, bless the Lord.
All you winds, bless the Lord.
Fire and heat, bless the Lord.
Cold and chill, bless the Lord.
Dew and rain, bless the Lord.
Frost and chill, bless the Lord.
Ice and snow, bless the Lord.
Nights and days, bless the Lord.
Light and darkness, bless the Lord.
Lightnings and clouds, bless the Lord.
And so forth. It might suffice to say "water," but instead "shower and dew" are used. One might assume that "fire" implies "heat," but the author uses both. Some pairings are more complex: "nights and days" are opposites which, together, might be taken to mean "all times."
More often, this repetition in the Hebrew scriptures comes in the form of back to back lines which repeat the same concept. We can see this, for example, in Psalm 81:
Sing joyfully to God our strength;
raise loud shouts to the God of Jacob!
Take up a melody, sound the timbrel,
the pleasant lyre with a harp.
Blow the shofar at the new moon,
at the full moon, on our solemn feast.
For this is a law for Israel,
an edict of the God of Jacob
Although the Canticle of Zechariah comes in the New Testament, it is uttered by a Jew, indeed a priest of the tribe of Levi. Thus it comes as little surprise that it follows this convention of repetition. I would like to suggest, however, that this repetition is not - neither here nor elsewhere - merely filler. Nor is it simply a repetition for those who may not have been paying attention the first time (though that too is a useful function). Rather, I believe these repetitions, in pairs or triples, invite us to consider the subtle differences between them and offer insights if we consider carefully what is being equated. Let us begin with the first lines:
Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel;
He has come to His people and set them free.
Notice the conjunction in the second line: He has come to His people and set them free. This is a repetition, a redundancy. The very act of God's coming is inherently liberating. That is a powerful witness to both His might and His goodness.
He has raised up for us a mighty Saviour,
Born of the house of His servant David.
I think this pairing speaks of the promise that God makes to David, through the prophet Nathan, in 2 Samuel 7: "The Lord also reveals to you that he will establish a house for you. And when your time comes and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your heir after you, sprung from your loins, and I will make his kingdom firm.... And I will make his royal throne firm forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me.... Your house and your kingdom shall endure forever before me; your throne shall stand firm forever." Any good Jew, familiar with this messianic prophesy, knows that the savior will come from the house of David. And if he does, clearly he will be mighty, for the Lord will be with him.
Through His holy prophets He promised of old
That He would save us from our enemies,
From the hands of all who hate us.
He promised to show mercy to our fathers
And to remember His holy covenant.
This was the oath He swore to our father Abraham:
To set us free from the hands of our enemies,
Free to worship Him without fear,
Holy and righteous in His sight
All the days of our life.
We have three promises given here, or three versions of the same promise: salvation from enemies, mercy, and freedom to worship. The Psalms and other writings often conflate political and spiritual enemies; while such a reading is possible here, I think the repetition begins to unwind it, since enemies are not merely political rivals or opponents on the battlefield, but those "who hate us." For those with the eyes of faith, the ultimate hate comes from Satan, born of his jealousy that mankind might be so intimate with God. Thus, salvation from enemies is more than a promise that God marches with our armies; it is deliverance from evil.
The mercy promised to our fathers is paired with God's remembrance of His covenant. To a Jew, bound by the ritual law and all its requirements, the covenant might seem like a burden, a punishment, not mercy. Even Christians, bound by fewer everyday restrictions - though called to the law of love - sometimes feel burdened by God's covenant. But Zechariah reminds us that God's covenant and rules are the fruit of His mercy. We may trust that they are for our good.
Zechariah ties the freedom to worship with freedom from enemies; more on that in a moment. Notice that worshiping without fear is paired with being holy and righteous. Why would a worshiper fear? If such worship were illegal one might fear the secret police. Real though such a fear is, it is ultimately temporal and passing. But what if one's worship is not pleasing to the Almighty? This fear is eternal and of the gravest consequence. Here Zechariah points out that, in the context of the savior's coming, God will make us holy and righteous, such that our worship might be pleasing to Him.
But let us return to the three-fold promise: salvation from enemies, mercy, and freedom to worship. Not only does the canticle link them all together by identifying them as God's promise, but Zechariah explicitly notes that God sets us "free from the hands of our enemies, / Free to worship Him without fear," thus linking these promises. Why? Because they are all pieces of the larger movement of God's salvation, brought by the Davidic savior: In God's mercy we are protected from the malevolent powers of evil, made holy and righteous, called to a new life as God's people, and invited to worship Him.
You, My child shall be called
The prophet of the Most High,
For you will go before the Lord to prepare His way,
To give His people knowledge of salvation
By the forgiveness of their sins.
Notice that the prophet - John the Baptist - is doing three things here. Or, rather, three dimensions of his task are explained: he prepare's the Lord's way, he imparts knowledge of salvation, and he speaks of the forgiveness of sins. Recall that we have already seen the Lord's coming linked with salvation; the latter is the natural consequence of the former. Thus, the Lord's way is not prepared with triumphal arches or flower-strewn roads, but by communicating the reality of His salvation. Whereas earlier stanzas understood salvation as freedom from enemies and the promise of holiness, we now understand it in a new way: forgiveness of sins. This is not a contradiction but a viewing of the same reality from another side. Satan, the Tempter, lures us into sin and thereby deprives us of holiness. But the savior will free us from the Evil One, forgive our sins, and thus bring holiness.
In the tender compassion of our Lord
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 into the way of peace.
Finally, we are told that the Dawn from on High - that is, Jesus, the Davidic savior - will do two things: He will shine on those in darkness and He will guide us into peace. The interconnection between our human sin and spiritual warfare is already seen above. Likewise, we have implicitly been hearing about the communal nature of sin and salvation: notice that Zechariah always speaks in the plural about "us." In these final lines these concepts are brought together. Those dwelling in darkness - the darkness of demonic oppression and of personal sin - cannot live in social harmony, and so their lives are lives of conflict. But Jesus brings something different. He brings His light, His saving presence, and by dispelling the darkness shows us the way to harmony and peace.