Why the Canticle of Zechariah is my new go-to pro-life prayer

Why the Canticle of Zechariah is my new go-to pro-life prayer

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,

for he has visited and redeemed his people,

and has raised up a horn of salvation for us

in the house of his servant David,

as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,

that we should be saved from our enemies,

and from the hand of all who hate us;

to perform the mercy promised to our fathers,

and to remember his holy covenant,

the oath which he swore to our father Abraham,

to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,

might serve him without fear

 in holiness and righteousness before him

all the days of our life.

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;

for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,

to give knowledge of salvation to his people

in the forgiveness of their sins,

through the tender mercy of our God,

when the day shall dawn upon us from on high

to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,

to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

(The Canticle of Zechariah, Luke 1: 68-79 rsv)

In Morning Prayer from the Divine Office (aka the Liturgy of the Hours), the Canticle of Zechariah is prayed aloud every day. The Canticle, or song, is Zechariah’s prophetic exhortation about the greatness of God in sending his son, John the Baptist, as the Forerunner to announce the coming of Christ.There are many words and themes in this canticle prayer that can prepare our hearts and minds for the work of evangelization, and the bringing of the Gospel of Life to our society in a positive, loving, and peace-filled way.

Here’s my take on it, line by line, for it stirs my heart.

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,

for he has visited and redeemed his people,

The first line blesses God. We must keep God first in all things, in all that we do, including pro-life activities. Everything must start with prayer, continue with prayer, and end with prayer. We work for the God who came to His People, as one like them — first, as an unborn baby in the womb, then as man who walked among us. This is a God that is personally involved with us – as persons. And he increases our dignity as persons through redemption. Jesus’ birth is still one of the biggest celebrations our world has ever known – Christmas is the joy of the Incarnation – that God is with us.

and has raised up a horn of salvation for us

in the house of his servant David,

Horns, or trumpets, in the bible, announce things, like victory. They sing of victory marches, royal strength and power. David was renown as the king who brought all the tribes of Israel together under his leadership. Jesus, from the Davidic line, is King of the Universe. He is ever the Victor over sin and death, the source of our salvation. The New Testament (1 Thes 4:16) says that Christ’s second coming will be accompanied by the blast of the trumpet.

as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,

For centuries, Jesus’ coming was announced by the Prophets. Christians come from a long line of God-worshippers, freedom fighters, and justice seekers. The holy prophets of old knew what it was like to face down a society that was hostile to their message, even among their own people. Yet the stood bravely and delivered the truth all the same.

Our baptism, in the Name of the Father, Son, and Spirit, links us to every single person who has ever borne the name of God on their lips and lived and announced this faith in their respective cultures. The Prophets of old are standing with the prophetic voice of new generations… in and through Christ.

that we should be saved from our enemies,

and from the hand of all who hate us;

The enemies of life and truth are the denial of human personhood as sacred from conception to natural death, and the institutions in our society that destroy or degrade life. The people who hold those views should be treated with respect, as they, as persons, are not our true enemies but, ultimately, our brothers and sisters in need of the Gospel. Their ideology – what Blessed John Paul II labeled as the culture of death –is what leads people to ruin. The tricky part for us in the pro-life cause is to delivers a message of love and life even in the face of powerful opposition without degrading the personhood of those opposing us. See the earlier paragraph about praying all the time. We cannot do this without the import of grace.

Our model for this is always Jesus, who asks that we pick up our own cross to follow him. This is not easy to do. Remember what Jesus did; on the way to Calvary, many people lined the streets and hated him, mocking his message. Still, he carried on, with love and fortitude. He was pained and burdened but did not lift a hand in violence to them nor did he shout anyone down. He loved people, even his detractors and persecutors. Jesus, with the prophets and martyrs, teaches us that even being put to death for one’s beliefs is still a “win”, for it leads to eternal life.

to perform the mercy promised to our fathers,

and to remember his holy covenant,

the oath which he swore to our father Abraham,

Jesus = mercy. That’s the equation we must bring to all pro-life work. The love of God for us in Jesus is fantastic, forgiving, mind-blowing, redeeming, deep mercy.

Notice the twice-mentioned fatherhood language in these verses. The life of the family, of nations, is ever under the mercy of God. We are God’s children by virtue of our baptism, born into the family of God, besides our families of origin. It also means, though it seems very distant, we are the children of Abraham, too.

to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,

might serve him without fear,

Again, the canticle lifts the concern of being delivered from enemies. Just in case we didn’t get it the first time, the prayer repeats this strength of conviction. We must need this reminding and assurance.

Let’s face it; we live in a feel-good society. We prefer pleasure to pain, and prize being liked, loved, and well thought of by others. But as Christians, our life of redemption begins by standing in the shadow of the cross, like Mary did. Even the most sinless, perfect human person on earth, Mary, still had heartaches and difficulties to endure.

Jesus’ mission to save, as Zechariah points out, includes deliverance from our enemies. If that is the case, we should not fear our own mission, as Christians in imitation of Jesus, to offer to the world a path to peace, healing, freedom, and justice in His Name. Mary had perfect grace to assist her to endure the imperfections of life. We, too, through the graces of Baptism, Eucharist, and Confirmation, have the graces to serve Christ without fear, or, if we are fearful, to do the right thing in spite of it.

in holiness and righteousness before him all the days of our life.

This is the call to holiness for all of us. God longs for us to be holy, to be saints, all the days of our life. That’s a tall order isn’t it? In pro-life work, we must be strong, loving, and secure. We must radiate all manner of decency to those we meet – people within our cause, and the people we hope to win over.

That word “life” stands out now, doesn’t it? How grateful we must be for our own lives. Our righteousness must spring from that deep awareness and gratitude of being alive, that each human life is a gift to be received and celebrated.

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;

for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,

to give knowledge of salvation to his people

in the forgiveness of their sins,

A father’s love is exemplified in Zechariah’s words to John. He already knows, by the power of the Holy Spirit, that his son is destined to announce God’s message.

If we read these verses as God’s Word to us, we see God the Father handing on a mission to us, in imitation of his Son, Jesus. Again, our own baptismal call includes the Church’s mission to evangelize, to help make disciples. Praying this prayer every morning in Morning Prayer is a reminder for all the People of God — priests, religious, and laity — to live their Christian vocation to spread the Gospel with love.

through the tender mercy of our God,

when the day shall dawn upon us from on high

to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,

to guide our feet into the way of peace.

God tenderly loves us. With deep compassion for our weaknesses and sin, He illuminates our ways and lifts us out of the shadows. That tender mercy that He extends to us is what we must extend in our pro-life work. We must be characterized by tender compassion as we attempt to shine as lights in the darkness with the light of the Gospel of Life.

Those final words about guiding “our feet into the way of peace” merit our reflection.

When we follow the ways of the Lord, there is great peace, despite the challenges and demands of standing against a culture of death. St Paul said it best, I think, in the Letter to the Philippians, that God’s peace is the hallmark of the presence of the Spirit that “keeps” us, that affirms and protects us, that unites us with Jesus.

Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Phil. 4: 6-7.

Let our feet, our ways, be guided mercy, that we may know such peace.

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Comments

  1. How did I miss this last week?! I don’t know how many hundreds of times I’ve shifted into autopilot with this prayer. Thank you for spotlighting it — I hope you continue to deconstruct others, too.

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