Blessed Be the Lord
Like Abraham and Sarah before them, Zechariah and Elizabeth are waiting. They are waiting for God to make good on His promises. And then: John the Baptist is born. His birth is shrouded in mysteries, and now that this miraculous son has been born, his father’s tongue is loosed and he sings: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel.” For this birth signals that the wait is over—not just the wait for John, but for the One whose sandals John is unfit to tie.
Waiting, longing, hoping. With regard to the great promises God had made to Israel, Zechariah now speaks of them in the past tense: “God has visited and redeemed his people.” For this son of his “will be called the prophet of the Most High” because he will “go before the Lord to prepare his ways.” The coming of John announces the coming of the Lord’s Messiah. Now that John is here, we know that the hope of the ages has also come. It’s as good as done. And so Zechariah’s song is filled with talk of salvation, redemption, and deliverance.
Surely Zechariah no longer sang when his son was beheaded.
In Bartolomeo di Giovanni’s Scenes from the Life of Saint John the Baptist, John’s beheading is curiously absent. The artist chooses to focus on scenes from the life of John instead of his death. I like to think that it is because the end of John’s life comes as too big of a shock for di Giovanni to include it. Indeed, the death of John the Baptist does come as a shock. John’s arrival heralds the advent of the long-awaited Messiah. He comes to prepare the way of the Lord. He comes preaching repentance, gaining disciples, baptizing in the Jordan. He even baptizes Jesus! But on the whim of a vengeful woman, John is executed. He does not die heroically at the battlefront, nor is he taken up in a fiery chariot like his predecessor.
John the Baptist is beheaded in prison.
At John’s birth, Zechariah sang of salvation from our enemies, “from the hand of those who hate us.” He did not know that John himself would fall at the hand of those who hated him. Zechariah sang of John’s coming to “give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.” He did not know that John would face death in the darkness of a prison.
The joy of John’s arrival is tempered by the reality of his violent death. It is a reminder to us that we sit “in between” times—in the tension of Christ’s two comings. Even though John announced the coming of Jesus, Jesus must still come again. All the enemies of God’s people have been defeated, but they must still be defeated fully. God has visited His people, but He must visit us finally. Until then, we wait. We long. We hope. Until then, blessed be the Lord God.
LUKE 1:67-79 - Zechariah's Prophecy
"Benedictus" - Vaughan Williams