January 25, 2016

Jesus' announcement in the Nazareth synagogue of his mission to the poor that is fulfilled "today" provides a framework for examining the canticles of Zechariah and Mary at the beginning of Luke's Gospel.

Luke's story, it must be noted, begins with Zechariah in the Temple in Jerusalem and ends with St. Paul preaching in Rome, the symbol and centre of the Gentile world. Luke and the Acts of the Apostles are not two stories, but one drama that swings on the hinge of Jesus' ascension.

Israel is not superseded by Christ's redeeming mission, but is absorbed into it and transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit who goes out to all the earth.

Israel is, in fact, the main character - the protagonist - in Luke's unfolding drama. It is Israel who is changed over the course of the drama, raised to a new and higher level.

Who, then, is the antagonist, the character who spurs change? We might be tempted to answer "Jesus." However, by looking closer and more deeply at Luke's drama, we find that the real antagonist is the Holy Spirit.

The Spirit acts through Jesus in the Gospel, and after the ascension, the Spirit is poured out with great power on the disciples. The Holy Spirit turns a fearful lot of Galileans into an irresistible force. Once St. Paul, the ultra-faithful Jew, is swept up by the Spirit, there is no stopping the spread of the Gospel.

The canticles are rife with the symbolism of and implicit references to the Old Testament. The explicit references to the Holy Spirit provide the new dimension.

Mary comes to visit her kinswoman Elizabeth and praises God with her Magnificat.

Mary comes to visit her kinswoman Elizabeth and praises God with her Magnificat.

Although the Magnificat (Luke 1.46-55) is generally attributed to Mary, some ancient manuscripts attribute it to Elizabeth. Some credibility can be given to this attribution in that immediately prior to the proclamation of this prayer Elizabeth was "filled with the Holy Spirit" (1.41).


However, the Spirit had earlier come upon Mary when Jesus was conceived in her womb (1.35). Either way, the canticle should be seen as Spirit-inspired.

Theologian Gustavo Gutierrez says the Magnificat "expresses humbly the joy of being loved by God." At the same time, it is "closely linked to the action of God who liberates the oppressed and humbles the proud."

Too often, the Magnificat has been spiritualized, that is, had its liberating power sucked out of it so that God is seen as endorsing personal humility, but making no statement about the powerful who are brought down from their thrones.

The canticle does both. It prophesies that hungry people will be fed, and that the rich and powerful will lose their position of dominance. To ignore the latter is to ignore the "today" quality of God's kingdom, pushing the kingdom off into a distant future when God supposedly takes away the material world and gives everlasting joy to Jesus' faithful followers.


The God who is magnified in Mary's soul is the God of Israel, "the Mighty One" whose very name is holy. God has not abandoned Israel, but is rather fulfilling "the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and his descendants forever."

Zechariah too was filled with the Spirit as he proclaimed his canticle (1.68-79) at the circumcision of John the Baptist.

Twice in his canticle, Zechariah prophesies that God will save Israel "from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us."

Who are the enemies? Some, again, spiritualize the canticle and assert that these enemies are our sins. This is a forced interpretation, obviously so in that Zechariah was proclaiming these words in the Temple on the occasion of a circumcision - two of the three main symbols of Jewish identity and Israel's resistance to its Roman occupiers.


Zechariah proclaims that Israel will be able to serve the Most High "without fear, in holiness and righteousness." The nation will be set free, not by a violent uprising, but by "the tender mercy of our God." It will rise out of darkness into the way of peace.

The canticles set the stage for Jesus who, "filled with the Holy Spirit" (Lk 4.1), will announce the end of waiting, that God's kingdom is here "today."

They also proclaim that Israel's story continues. In Luke's Gospel, one does not find the sharp split between Israel and the Church evident in Matthew and John. Nor does one hear the harsh words which centuries later were used to justify anti-Semitism.


The kingdom, for Luke, is open-ended. It grows out of Jewish soil and blossoms into a future filled with the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Israel is the main character in Luke's drama, a character that receives mercy and the Holy Spirit, and is transformed as a result.