Advent 2: A Song that Means Blessed

By Jan Richardson

Benedictus © Jan L. Richardson

Canticle, Advent 2, Year C: Luke 1.68-79

“Burning/all night long/Burning/at the gates of dawn
Singing/near and far/Singing/to raise the morning star.”
–Bruce Cockburn

This Sunday, instead of a passage from the psalms, the Advent lectionary gives us a canticle—one of those those songs that trace a melodic, poetic, and oftentimes prophetic line through both testaments of the Bible. Reading the lines of what has become known as the Canticle of Zechariah, I cannot help but hear voices, and melody. I’m not having an auditory hallucination; the sounds are lodged in my memory, imprinted by years of singing these words on the occasions when I have gathered with my sisters and brothers of Saint Brigid of Kildare Monastery.

For a millennium and a half, this passage from Luke has been part of the Liturgy of the Hours, the monastic round of prayer that stretches from before dawn throughout the day and evening and into the dark again. Specifically, this text is chanted at the hour of Lauds, one of the early morning offices of prayer. It is known as the Benedictus: in Latin, this means blessed.

Blessed is the first word of the song that Zechariah sings. It is the first word we hear from his lips after the silence that the archangel Gabriel imposed on him when he dared to be incredulous at the news that his wife—who, as Zechariah himself described it, was “getting on in years”—was pregnant with the child whom we would come to know as John the Baptist, the one who would “make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1.17). Like Mary’s song that precedes it, Zechariah’s canticle is a potent song about what God has accomplished. It is a song, too, of what God will yet do in and through the life of this child—this baby eight days old—to whom Zechariah sings.

After Zechariah has blessed and praised God for some verses, he turns his focus on his child beginning in verse 76: “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 by the forgiveness of their sins.” One can imagine this father gathering his son into his arms as he raises what surely must have been a bittersweet song. If he knew this much about his son, Zechariah must also have had some understanding, like Mary in the temple after Simeon sang of her son with words about light and glory, that the shadow of a sword hovered close by.

And yet Zechariah sings. Full of wild hope, he sings. Knowing the state of the world, he sings. And he closes his canticle with these words:

By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.

These are my favorite lines of the canticle. When I pray with the St. Brigid’s community on our annual retreat, in that early morning hour when I am still in the realm between sleep and full waking, we chant these lines twice: once at the beginning of the canticle, and again at the end. In my mind, these lines are so bound together with sunrise and meeting the day that I can almost imagine that we—all of us around the world who sing these words at the outset of the day—sing them not in response to the coming of dawn but rather to help ensure it. Not in a literal fashion, of course; the physical rising of the sun does not depend on us (and a good thing, too, as my night owl self rarely is up at that hour). But there is some kind of light that depends on our waiting for it, watching for it, singing it into this world. And when we can’t, God bids us trust that there are others watching and waiting and singing on our behalf and on behalf of the world.

Sitting down to write this reflection, I receive an email from a friend with surprising, horrendous news about her young husband’s health. Yesterday, word of the death of a colleague’s son in an accident. My prayer list for those in peril—medical, financial, emotional—steadily grows. And here in Advent, as those of us in the northern hemisphere journey through the darkest part of the year, we gather these words about ourselves and pray for tender mercy. Not in denial, but, like Zechariah, in the place where wild hope is born.

I read the lines again, and again I hear the voices of my sisters and brothers, praying at dawn. Praying for dawn. Praying the dawn. Voices rising, falling, rising again.

In darkness, we sing.

In the shadow of death, we sing.

Blessing, we sing.


Whom do you hear as you read the lines of this canticle? How do you watch and wait and sing for the light? Who does this for you when you cannot? Who might need you to do it for them? What wild hope do you carry in these days?

Amid the shadows, may we lift our voices in blessing. Peace to you.

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4 Responses to “Advent 2: A Song that Means Blessed”

  1. Elizabeth Nordquist Says:

    I, as you, am encountering the darkness and shadow of death this Advent-a sister-in-law has died, a former student has had brain surgery, a family is estranged, a child is broken, soul sisters -widowed this time last year-feeling as if this is the worst of the grief- And so to pray and wait and watch for the tender mercies and for the dawn from on high to break in. And into me where I am tempted to let the Darkness win. Thanks for being the angel to point me to the Un-extinguishable Light again. Elizabeth

    • Jan Richardson Says:

      Thanks so much, Elizabeth—I am grateful for your lovely words, as ever. I wish you many blessings and much comfort amid the darkness and shadows, and may you have everything you need—both for your own self, and also as you minister to others with the light of your presence and prayers. May these Advent days bring much peace, and tender mercies aplenty.

  2. Maureen Says:

    The Canticle is beautiful.

    Light is hope emerging from the shadows. In hope is possibility.

    As night flows unto day, so we have always to go through darkness before we can reach light.

    • Jan Richardson Says:

      Thank you, Maureen. Reading your words about darkness, I think of the passage from Isaiah, one of my favorites, where God says, “I will give you the treasures of darkness, and riches hidden in the secret places.” Darkness definitely has its own gifts.

      Blessings to you…

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