One of my favorite aspects of the Advent/Christmas season is its traditional music. From the plaintive tones of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” to the joyous sounds of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” or “Joy to the World,” the music adds richness to the season. Music can affect our mood, alter our attitude, or highlight special themes. 

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior.” Thinkstock photo

Although we may not realize it, the same is true of “canticles,” the biblical equivalent of hymns. No one is more expert in using canticles to enhance his message than Luke the Evangelist.  

As the liturgical Year of Luke (C) begins, his canticles are well worth a closer look. They are all found in the Infancy Narrative of chapters one and two. One can clearly identify four distinct canticles, although one of them is very short: 

• The canticle of Mary (the Magnificat) – 1:46-55

• The canticle of Zechariah (the Benedictus) – 1:68-79

• The canticle of the angels (the Gloria) – 2:14

• The canticle of Simeon (the Nunc Dimittis) – 2:29-32.

The Latin names all derive from the first words of the Vulgate edition of each canticle. Priests and religious readily recognize the three principal canticles as daily features of the Liturgy of the Hours. The Benedictus is the Gospel canticle for morning prayer, the Magnificat for evening prayer, and the Nunc Dimittis for night prayer. From ancient Christian tradition these canticles were recited in connection with consecrating each day in prayer. 

According to the General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours, these biblical canticles are recited (or sung) “as expressions of praise and thanksgiving for our redemption” (No. 50). They are given the same “respect and dignity” as the proclamation of the Gospel at liturgy. Thus, they are pronounced standing (No. 138). They feature prominently in daily prayer to express gratitude for the salvation achieved in Jesus Christ. 

The tiny canticle of the angels, the Gloria, finds its way into the liturgical tradition at the Mass, as the first line of the Gloria, the song of praise said or sung at Sunday Masses or feasts. Since it is the heavenly response to the birth of Jesus as the Messiah, it can be included as a “canticle” in praise of what God has done in Jesus Christ. 

In fact, all the canticles in Luke are intimately tied to their immediate settings and show Luke to be a literary artist who appreciated the effect of timeless, poetic reflections in the midst of his narrative or “orderly account” (1:3) of the Gospel events.  

Each canticle utilizes familiar biblical imagery from the Old Testament. The very “flavor” of the canticles is quite Jewish, shaped by Hebrew parallelism and evocative imagery from the Old Testament. Let’s take a little closer look at each canticle. 

The Magnificat

This hymn is arguably the most beloved of the canticles for several reasons. First, it is Mary’s own hymn. For Luke and all subsequent Christians, Mary is the first and truest disciple, for she both hears and does the will of God (8:21). Mary cries out in joy in response to Elizabeth’s praise of what God has done for her and her unquestioning response to His mysterious but holy Word (1:42-45). This hymn praises God not for what He is about to do in the birth of His Son, but for His past (and continued) beneficence! 

As Mary says: God has “done great things for me,” God’s name is holy, He has been powerful, He has been merciful, He has turned the world upside down, casting out rulers but lifting up the lowly, feeding the hungry but sending the rich away empty-handed, and ultimately saving Israel, His chosen servant.  

This is the song of a faithful daughter of Israel, who looks back on God’s infinite mercy but who also stands ready to do His will in her own life, trusting that her unexplainable and mysterious pregnancy announced some verses before by the angel Gabriel will bear holy fruit.  

Paradoxically, God’s powerful actions, the Magnalia Dei of Israel’s history, will be overshadowed by the actions of her son, the Son of God, who will incarnate in His ministry all that is embodied in Mary’s hymn. He will show himself God’s agent of mercy to the lowly and God’s winnowing fan to those who are arrogant (4:18-19). 

The Benedictus

The second canticle comes from Zechariah, a priest of the Temple and John the Baptist’s father, whose wife miraculously conceives a son in their old age. His dumb tongue is loosened when he unexplainably confirms Elizabeth’s decision to call the boy John. Zechariah is then “filled with the Holy Spirit” (a characteristic of all heroic figures in Luke) and sings out in joy.  

Of similar length to Mary’s canticle, Zechariah’s song speaks of the fidelity of the God of Israel to His “holy covenant.” The first half of Zechariah’s canticle echoes Mary’s own words but gets even more specific. He speaks of God having “visited His people,” “brought redemption” and raised up “salvation,” which is specifically defined as “salvation from our enemies and the hand of all who hate us” (1:71). 

Whereas Mary’s hymn was directed entirely toward the praise of God, Zechariah’s second part addresses his own little son (“and you, child,” 1:76-79). Many things are said of this child’s future mission. He is to be prophet of the Most High, to go before the Lord to prepare the way, and to impart knowledge of “salvation” by the “forgiveness of sins.” 

These indeed are acted out in chapter three of Luke where John’s ministry is summarized in ways that fulfill his father’s prophecies. Zechariah also proclaims the reason for this prophecy. It is due to the “tender mercy” of God who visits his people and brings light into their darkness to lead them on a path of peace (1:78-79). 

No better words could fit with the season of Advent and Christmas where thoughts are turned to light in darkness, joy in the world, and the ever-present need for true peace. John is the perfect Advent character, preparing for the Savior. Luke also notes that God’s Spirit was upon both of them, and both grew in wisdom and stature before God and mankind (cf. 1:80; 2:52). 

The Gloria

The resounding hymn of the Gloria belies its brevity. It is proclaimed by “a multitude of the heavenly host” who suddenly appear beside the angel who announces to lowly shepherds that “a savior” has been born in the city of David (2:11-12). Ironically, they are directed to find this savior as an infant, placed in an animal food bin — a manger. Their hymn is clearly one of praise to God. Their voices resound between heaven and earth, thus encompassing the created universe. 

The phrase “on earth peace among those whom He favors” has an alternate version in some manuscripts that read “on earth peace, good will toward men.” The first version is likely the more original, and it emphasizes peace among those whom God has already favored. This peace, though, is not a mere absence of war and conflict. It is the deep shalom, total well-being, that comes from God. Once more the focus is on God’s concrete generosity toward His people. 

The Nunc Dimittis

The fourth canticle is found on the lips of yet another faithful, righteous and devout person, Simeon. He is said to be awaiting “the consolation of Israel,” and also he is filled with the Holy Spirit (2:25). With the presentation of Jesus in the Temple, his wait is over. He takes the child in his arms and sings out his song of praise and departure. He can be dismissed now with peace of mind, for he has seen with his own eyes and held in his hands the “salvation” God prepared.  

Paradoxically, though this salvation is for the “glory of Israel,” Simeon’s canticle also mentions “light for revelation to the Gentiles” (2:32). Salvation, a theme in all these canticles, is for all people; Jesus’ mission as it unfolds in Luke illustrates this. He sets out to bring all to the table of the Lord, and His final acts of mercy on the cross are to forgive His tormentors (23:34) and to welcome a humble sinner to Paradise (23:43). 

Singing Out with Joy

In a sense, Luke’s canticles are meant to be sung out by all people of good will. We all have reason to praise and glorify God, to be filled with God’s own Spirit, and to sing out for joy for the redemption, salvation, peace, joy, vindication, and well-being that has come from God in Jesus Christ. Each canticle reflects its immediate context but also becomes timeless. Each peers backward to some degree to praise God’s goodness to humanity. 

But looking backwards gives people courage to look forward. In the person of Jesus Christ, we always have reason to sing praise. This is something we are invited to do day in and day out, as we recite or chant these canticles. But it is especially a joyful task in this season of hope, where we pray for light in the darkness and for peace on the earth. So, with Luke, let us sing out with joy to the Lord! TP

Father Witherup, S.S., is Superior General of the Society of Saint Sulpice and frequent contributor to The Priest. Among his many publications is Gold Tested in Fire: A New Pentecost for the Catholic Priesthood (Liturgical Press, 2012), and a new set of CD’s, Treasure in Earthen Vessels: The Spirituality of Paul the Apostle (Now You Know Media, 2012).