What is the Benedictus?

A song of great spiritual depth, the Benedictus is the song of thanksgiving that Zechariah sings when his speech returns to him after his son John (who came to be known as John the Baptist) is born. This song is his expression of gratitude to God both for the fulfillment of his people’s messianic hopes – Zechariah now understands the Messiah is coming — and also for giving him a child. Essentially a hymn of adoration, Benedictus means “praise be.”

In some Western churches, such as Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran, the Benedictus is sung every day in the service of Morning Prayer. The Eastern Orthodox Church prescribes it to be sung daily as well.

Perhaps the primary reason for the popularity over the ages of the Benedictus is that it serves as a guide to enable us to see how God may be blessed, in the sense of being praised. Luke portrays the entire life of Christ in his gospel from the perspective of a blessing.

Every once in a while life can be eloquent. We go along from day to day not noticing very much, not really seeing or hearing, and then suddenly, when we least expect it, something speaks to us with such power that it catches us off guard, requiring us to listen. It is an experience that calls us by name and forces us to look where we hadn’t had the heart to look before, and perhaps to hear something that for years we hadn’t had the courage to hear.

He begins his story about Jesus with the priest Zechariah in the temple of Jerusalem, during the time for sacrifice, which is why in church tradition an ox, a sacrificial animal, became the symbol for Luke. However, he presents Zechariah as unable to pronounce the blessing on the people because he has been struck mute.

Luke ends his narrative back in another liturgical setting, when Jesus, after the resurrection, leads his disciples out of the city and blesses them with uplifted hands. Luke writes his gospel account as the fulfillment of a blessing, a benediction; the unfinished worship service in the temple at the beginning is completed at the end.

Luke brilliantly brings this narrative of blessing to life in his vivid writing style. An expert storyteller, he is able to paint a picture of each event in colorful detail—’indeed, from the sixth century onward, tradition records that Luke was not just a medical doctor, but also a painter.

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