A song at the heart of the Gospel

Today’s gospel is the continuation of the narrative of Mary as we have followed from her encounter with an Angel announcing that she is to be the mother of the Messiah into the hill country of Judea and her encounter with Elizabeth. Filled with the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth proclaims:

Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.” (Luke 1:43-45)

Elizabeth confirms and praises the promises of God coming into the world. And upon that confirmation, Mary exults in the extraordinary canticle we know as the Magnificat: my soul magnifies the Lord.

The four canticles in Luke’s Gospel (Mary’s Magnificat, Luke 1:46-55; Zachariah’s Benedictus, 1:67-79; the angels’ Gloria, 2:14; and Simeon’s Nunc Dimittis, 2:29-32) hold a unique place both in the canon of Christian Scripture and in the life of the Christian Church. They are set at the heart of the Scriptures because of their literary proximity and unique poetic response to the event to which all of the Scriptures point – the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. The Rev. Canon Leon Morris, in his introduction to the Tyndale Commentary on Luke, writes, “Luke’s is a singing Gospel. He records some of the great hymns of the Christian faith; the Magnificat, the Benedictus and the Nunc Dimittis.” Over the centuries the Church has employed these three canticles as the climax of the three major Hours: Morning Prayer (Benedictus), Evening Prayer (Magnificat) and Night Prayer (Nunc Dimittis). The angel’s Gloria is part of Eucharistic liturgies.

In Scripture, the canticles are set at the very heart of things, as all of them point to the fulfillment of the promise of God in Jesus Christ. All of the Old Testament awaits the event of Christ’s incarnation, his life, death, and resurrection. The four gospels proclaim that event, and the rest of the New Testament interprets it. The four canticles in the first two chapters of Luke’s gospel are unique in that they give us the immediate responses of people and angels to the turning point of all Scripture. One easily hears the echo of the psalm:

Shout joyfully to the LORD, all you lands; serve the LORD with gladness; come before him with joyful song. Know that the LORD is God, he made us, we belong to him, we are his people, the flock he shepherds. Enter his gates with thanksgiving, his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, bless his name; good indeed is the LORD, his mercy endures forever, his faithfulness lasts through every generation. (Psalm 100)

Psalm 100 allows us to contemplate not only the attitude of the canticles’ authors, but also their response to the miraculous event taking place. As the narrative of Jesus’ birth progresses, Luke calls forward these three witnesses to testify to the things they see, and the words that flow forth from their mouths are pure music – as befit words that describe the incarnation of the long awaited Savior of Israel. Mary, Zachariah and Simeon do indeed “enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise.” The response of singing and of praise at the advent of the Lord as the natural response to this event is one of the major lessons that the Lukan canticles have to offer the people of God in every age.

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