Everyone loves the Magnificat, and I don’t blame them. The faithful with a traditional theological bent can exult in the opening declaration that “My soul magnifies the LORD,” and those who call themselves progressive rejoice in the great power-reversals that Mary’s song narrates. (Since I’m a traditionalist with some leftist notions of what would make for good politics, I dig all of the above.) But the Church doesn’t let Mary’s song stand alone, glorious as it is: Zechariah’s song, though we hear it after the Magnificat in the gospel of Luke, comes before in the Advent sequence.
The old priest sings his oracle of things to come after a long spell of forced silence, the strange sentence that results from a perfectly understandable (and with Biblical precedent!) concern about old folks and whether or not they should be having babies at their age. When speech returns to Zechariah, he proclaims not only the glory of the LORD to whom his life has been devoted but also a vision of what his own son and the Son of Mary will bring to the world.
Perhaps Zechariah gets less press because, to our modern ears, they sound more conventionally “religious.” Where Mary sings of high places brought low and hungry folks being fed, Zechariah intones on matters of righteousness and holiness. Mary sets before us a story of God’s saving might; Zechariah anticipates a time when we can serve God, a great phrase to be sure but one that conjures images of churches and song services rather than revolution and transformation.
And perhaps that’s not all bad. My own sense, working among young folks (and old folks) who too often treat “religion” as a mild cuss word and who regard church services too often as hideouts for hypocrites, is that we Christians could use some reminders that an invitation to sing with God’s people is not something that the wise take lightly. The “way of peace” is going to involve a radical shift in the ways that we human beings imagine our neighbors, to be sure, but it’s also going to involve those gatherings that celebrate the God who gives peace as another and as a grand gift.
John the Baptist, an infant at the point of the story where Luke writes this song, ultimately gives way, violently, to the King whom he prophesies. His harsh vision of God’s ax at the root of Israel’s rotten tree comes to its fullness, but what springs forth is not merely another David but another Exodus, a new creation, another journey from exile into promise. But lest we minimize John and the song of John’s father, let us remember that God reveals to us all of these grand images neither in the dark and alluring guise of an Athenian tragedy nor in the bizarre narrative like Gilgamesh but in the familiar phrases of our own songs, as we gather to sing of a God who invites us to worship and whose great acts we hear as we eat together.
May the songs of Israel shape our souls that we might long rightly for the Kingdom of God.