Zechariah’s Song

For a guy who wakes up at 5 am most days, I’m really not a morning guy.  I hate getting out of bed.  It takes me at least 90 minutes and two cups of coffee to feel safe operating a motor vehicle.  I rarely wake up excited to start a new day.  So it is that I’m not one who can pull out their Book of Common Prayer and a Bible and read morning prayer.  Navigating the Psalms, appointed lessons, and the Collect of the Day is enough to make me want to crawl back in bed.  I rely instead on the good people at Forward Movement who provide up-to-the minute accuracy on the Daily Office website.  It might be cheating to not have to do the page flipping, but that it keeps me from cursing seems to be a fair trade off, and besides, I own a pellet smoker, so I’m kind of OK with taking the easy way out.

Still, I’m not a morning person, and so I’m often either teetering on the edge of falling back asleep or pushing my luck in the amount of time I have before the kids get up.  Should I be planning my own Morning Prayer office, I’d probably choose the shortest canticles every morning, but because I rely on the coding skills of the FM staff, I’m at their mercy.  If they choose all three section of Canticle 12: A Song of Creation, I’m stuck reading it.  I can remember early on in this phase of my Daily Office habit getting frustrated with what seems to be a strong affinity on behalf of the coders for Canticle 16: the Song of Zechariah.  It’s pretty long, and it spends half of its time rehearsing Old Testament prophecy.  Couldn’t it just jump from the first verse to “You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High…”?

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In the years that have passed since restarting a Morning Prayer routine, I’ve learned to love Zechariah’s Song, which is appointed in place of a Psalm for Advent 2C.  I love it contextually, as it comes from the mouth of the temporarily mute priest Zechariah who doubted God’s ability to produce a child for this long barren couple. I love that it is sung in direct response to his fear-filled neighbors who wonder, “What will this child become?”  And yes, now I even love that it takes the time to cover the promise of God to the people of Israel through the prophets, all the way back to Abraham.  What I love the most, however, is the blessing Zechariah bestows upon his son.  Like it is for Mary, I’m sure that Zechariah knows that this particular blessing will bring with it pain for John and his family, but in faithfulness, the blessing is proclaimed nonetheless.

“You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, *
for you will go before the Lord to prayer 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 guid our feet into the way of peace.”

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The Song of Three Young Men

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One can quibble with the contents of the Veggie Tales video series.  The theology is, at best, moral therapeutic deism.  The worldview is fairly closed minded.  It might occasionally border on supercessionism.  This is all true, but is also true that some of the songs are downright catchy and that some of the dialogue can be pretty funny.  I don’t make a habit of watching Veggie Tales, but over the years, I’ve seen several episodes, and even own the Jonah movie.  For all of the good and bad, one episode in particular holds a special place in my heart.  “Rack, Shack, and Benny” tells the story of three friends of Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who were in the court of King Nebuchadnezzar.  It is perhaps most famous for the “Bunny Song.”  I won’t get that stuck in your head, but I will suggest that another apocryphal song does.

In several Greek and Latin versions of the Hebrew Bible, in between Daniel 3:23 and Daniel 3:24, has been inserted a long passage that includes a song, purported to have been sung by Rack, Shack, and Benny.  It is called “The Song of the Three Jews” or, as the Book of Common Prayer calls it, “The Song of Three Young Men.”  On Trinity Sunday, a portion of that song, Benedictus es, Domine, is an optional responsory text.  John Rutter, the king of modern Anglican music, whose catalog made an appearance at both the Royal Wedding and my daughter’s dance recital on Sunday, set it to music, which can be found at S236 in the Hymnal 1982, and should be sung in every Episcopal congregation this week.

The canticle is appropriate for Trinity Sunday because it makes a passing reference to the Trinity (though that’s really just an appended doxology), but what makes me so bold as to suggest it should be sung everywhere this week is the clarity with which it handles the glory of God.  Trinity Sunday reminds us, preachers especially, that God is totally beyond our comprehension.  God is the creator of all things, the redeemer of our sinful lot, and the one who lifts us toward sanctification.  God is present in all things everywhere.  God’s throne is so large that earth is its footstool and yet God is so present as to be a still, small voice.  Because of how great God is, when we try to explain God with certainty, we fall into trouble, and so, the Benedictus es, Domine, helps to remind me that when words fail, praise can take over.

Trinity Sunday shouldn’t be about explaining the triune nature of the Godhead.  Instead, the telos of Trinity Sunday should be awe, wonder, and praise.  To my mind, there is no better form of praise than the note found at the 1:14-5 mark of the video above.  This week, dear reader, don’t get lost in the details of the Trinity, but rather, rejoice and praise.

Nunc dimittis

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, but today it must be said that one of the great losses that occurred following the restoration of The Holy Eucharist as the central act of Sunday worship in The Episcopal Church is the singing of the canticles.  No more do congregations have the chance to be imbued with these songs of Scripture, sung again and again over the years until they become a part of who we are.  Occasionally, we are reminded of this fact, when either the Lectionary assigns a Canticle instead of a Psalm for the “Response” or when one of the lessons includes a Canticle like the First Song of Isaiah, the Magnificat, or, as is the case on Sunday’s Feast of the Presentation, the Song of Simeon, Nunc Dimittis.  In addition, it is a real shame that we lose the great translations of those songs as well.  Do a quick comparison of the NSRV translation of the Song of Simeon with the Prayer Book version, and you’ll see what I mean.

While there certainly is depth and beauty in the NRSV’s rendering:

“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”

It seems to pale in comparison with the Prayer Book’s translation:

Lord, you now have set your servant free*
to go in peace as you have promised;
For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior,*
whom you have prepared for all the world to see:
A Light to enlighten the nations,*
and the glory of your people Israel.

The simplicity of the BCP version is stunning, in my opinion, and helps shine a light of the theme of Simeon’s song: God’s faithfulness to his promise of a savior who will cast a wide net to redeem the whole creation.  If you find yourself with 10 minutes notice that you are going to preach this Sunday, go to the Nunc Dimittis, you won’t be let down.