Monday, 6 March 2017

The Holy Spirit in the Prayer Books: Part 6—The Benedictus

Luke's Gospel is especially rich with references to the Holy Spirit particularly in the story of the miraculous events leading to Jesus' birth. The very first one is about John the Baptist being filled with the Holy Spirit before he was even born (Lk 1.15). The second is about another baby. The angel Gabriel tells the young woman, Mary, that she was about to be miraculously pregnant by the Holy Spirit (Lk 1.35). The third is to do with John's mother, Elizabeth, also miraculously pregnant, but in her old age and filled with the Holy Spirit, as she greeted Mary, the mother of Jesus, after Spirit-filled as yet unborn John leaped in her womb (Lk 1.41). The fourth reference is to John the Baptist's father, Zechariah, also filled with the Holy Spirit (Lk 1.67) who prompts him to prophesy over his newborn son. 

Prophecy is one of the charismatic, manifestation Gifts of the Spirit (1 Cor 12.10) and the higher, spiritual Gift which, according to Paul, ought to be "earnestly" and "especially" desired (1 Cor 12.31, 14.1, 39). Zechariah' inspired utterance is now known as the Benedictus (Benedictus, is simply the first word of the passage, "Blessed," in Latin), or Song of Zechariah, which features in Morning Prayer after the second reading every day in The Book of Common Prayer (p9) and is one of the optional canticles which may follow the readings in The Book of Alternative Service version of Morning Prayer (p88). Here is the BAS version: 

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; * 
he has come to his people and set them free.

He has raised up for us a mighty Saviour, * 
born of the house of his servant David.

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.

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.

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 into the way of peace.
(Luke 1.68–79)

I suspect that those who pray the morning office frequently, especially the BCP version, can develop such a comfortable familiarity with this canticle that its truly "charismatic" nature is lost. These are Zechariah's very first words after having been rendered mute for more than nine months because he failed to believe the angel Gabriel's foretelling of John's birth (Lk 1.20). 

The Benedictus is an amazing, miraculous Holy Ghost inspired utterance. God himself is glorified in the very first words. Holy Scripture, God's promises and the history of salvation are affirmed in the references to Abraham, David, the holy prophets and God's holy covenant with his people. It has been a part of the Church's prayer for nearly two thousand years. There is no question that the Church has been built up (1 Cor 14.5) by Zechariah's utterance. 

"The one who prophesies," writes Paul, "speaks to people for their upbuilding (strengthening) and encouragement and consolation (comfort)" (1 Cor 14.3). The Holy Spirit spoke through Zechariah to bless those who heard him that joyful day and to bless the Church ever since. There are, indeed, strengthening, encouraging and comforting words of blessing here. We are reminded that we have been set free, given a mighty Saviour, saved from our enemies and the hands of all who hate us, freed to worship without fear, made holy and righteous, as the dawn from on high breaks upon us and guides us into the way of peace. The Benedictus clearly meets Paul's 1 Corinthians 14 strengthening, encouraging and comforting criteria for trustworthy prophecy.

There is a forthtelling word about John, Zechariah and Elizabeth's miraculous new baby son, too. He will be a prophet of the Most High, going before the Lord to prepare his way and giving people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins. A true and God-breathed word for baby John and a point of application for you and me, too. I believe that, as witnesses of the Resurrection, you and I are called to do the same—to prepare the way of the Lord into the hearts of those who have not yet come to saving faith in Jesus by loving them with the tender compassion of God. Praying for them systematically, repeatedly and without losing heart will also prepare the Lord's way into their hearts so they, too, may gain knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins, as in God's tender compassion, the dawn from on high breaks upon them, shining on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death and guiding their feet into the way of peace. What a wonderful thing to pray for someone, what a wonderful task, what a wonderful, fruitful and Holy Spirited prophetic utterance. 

The Benedictus, a true Holy Spirit inspired prothetic word, is a key part of Anglican Morning Prayer. It has become a rich, evocative spoken song of praise and worship, a powerful prayer, and is very much worth repeating daily in Morning Prayer. 


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