On June 24, both the eastern and western Catholic Church celebrate the birth of John the Baptist. On September 23, the eastern rites celebrate his conception. (Count nine months from today and you’ll be right at the feast of his birth.) For this feast we recommend the painting “The Holy Family With St. John the Baptist” by Carvaggio.
John’s parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah, are in a line of stories told in scripture about faithful couples who ask God for a child but cannot conceive. Like Sarah and Abraham, they are elderly. The angel of the Lord comes to Zechariah and tells him they will have a son, whose name will be called John. He will be great in the sight of the Lord. This is news is so surprising that Zechariah is struck dumb. (You can read this story in Luke 1: 5-25.)
After John’s birth, once his tongue is freed, Zechariah’s first words are a hymn of praise to God. This hymn, called the Benedictus, is part of the morning prayer of the Roman Church. “Benedictus” means “blessed,” and Blessed be the God of Israel” is the first line of the song. (The Canticle of Mary, her hymn of praise, is sung as part of evening prayer.)
Sing Zechariah’s song today. The version below, from the Lutheran hymnal, With One Voice (Augsburg Fortress Publishing House, 1995) is set to the familiar English folk tune “Forest Green.” Because “Forest Green” is a common meter doubled hymn, it can be sung to other common meter hymns, like “Amazing Grace.” You’ll just sing that familiar tune twice (“doubled”) on each of the stanzas.
Blessed be the God of Israel who comes to set us free
And raises up new hope for us: a branch from David’s tree.
So have the prophets long declared that with a mighty arm
God would turn back our enemies and all who wish us harm.
With promised mercy will God still the covenant recall,
The oath once sworn to Abraham, from foes to save us all:
That we might worship without fear and offer lives of praise,
In holiness and righteous to serve God all our days.
My child as prophet of the Lord you will prepare the way,
To tell God’s people they are saved from sin’s eternal sway.
Then shall God’s mercy from on high shine forth and never cease
To drive away the gloom of death and lead us into peace.