Scroll down for to view the hymn and listen to the audio.
Dr. Steven Pilkington
In my business, “Blessed Be the God of Israel” is known as a canticle, a shop talk way of referring to a song-like text drawn from one of the books of the Bible excluding the psalms. This attractive carol which we regularly sing during the season of Advent is actually a paraphrase of words found in the first chapter of Luke (verses 68-79). The text has been versified and put into rhyming meter for the purpose of hymn singing. A song of great joy, the person who makes this ecstatic utterance is named Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. To know his story is to know many colorful facts that are usually found only in the pages of the New York Post. (Bless them for being a salacious counterpoint to the biblical nature of other New York newspapers.)
The details of this story seem sketchy: Zechariah has priestly duties in the Temple a couple of times a year (kind of like ushering today). When it’s his time, he mans one of the giant incense burners inside the sacred precincts of the Temple where only the priests may go. While there, whether from too much smoke or a design of God, he encounters Gabriel, the celebrity angel of the Bible. The news that is delivered is laughable: he and his childless wife, Elizabeth, both nearing retirement in Florida, will conceive a son to be named John. Zechariah, in a bold misstep, doubts the veracity of the angelic message. Gabriel’s response is swift and devastating: Zechariah loses all powers of speech. This encounter takes a long time to unfold and the worshipping people out on the huge terrace of the Temple wonder what’s happening inside. Interestingly, when Zechariah finally appears and it is clear he cannot speak, the people understand that he has had a vision. (I am personally perplexed as to why we have so much trouble recognizing and believing visionaries today.)
Later, Zechariah is even more dumbfounded when Elizabeth announces that she is pregnant. As a cousin of Mary, the two women will find their way to each other and hang out in the hill country during these extraordinary times. After Elizabeth gives birth and the old couple find themselves at a traditional naming ceremony, her husband will write on a tablet the name of the child. Instead of giving him the expected patronymic, he writes the name “John.” His tongue is immediately loosed and he utters the beautiful and powerful poetry that is recaptured in the hymn we speak of today.
This inspirational story reminds me of the well-known Verizon Wireless commercials. (By the way, is not the idea of instantaneous wireless communication a kind of holy mystery unto itself?) In the media spots, the tag line was, “Can you hear me now?” I think of God, Gabriel, and Zechariah.
The Advent message is repeated over and over, year after year. God patiently asks, “Can you hear me now? Can you hear me now?”
Prayer: Speak Lord. I, your servant, am listening. Amen.