The article of the month
The Poetry of Praise by Anthony Esolen
A Song of the Dawn
It was in this month, we believe, that the angel Gabriel appeared to the priest Zechariah, whose name means “The Lord remembers,” to tell him that his wife Elizabeth, who had been thought barren, would bear a son. The boy’s name, said the angel, would be John—Hebrew Jochanan, “God is gracious.” A fit name, for John would turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit of the power of Elijah (Lk 1:16-17), to prepare a way for the Lord. But when Zechariah demurred, because he was an old man and his wife had been barren, the angel declared that he would be speechless until the boy was born.
And indeed, when Elizabeth gave birth, their neighbors and kin asked what the boy’s name would be, and mother and father both replied, “John.” That surprised them, because no one in the family had that name, and in fact it’s a rare name in Scripture. The most notable Jochanan, before this, was the leader of the remnant of the children of Israel, after the Babylonians had destroyed Jerusalem and led most of the people into captivity. Jochanan went to Jeremiah to ask what God wanted them to do. Jeremiah prayed for ten days, and then told Jochanan that they should stay in Israel and not flee, for said God, I will build you up and not pull you down. To which Jochanan replied (to Jeremiah), You are telling a lie! (Jer 42:10, 43:2). So they went to Egypt, where, according to Jewish tradition, Jeremiah was stoned by his own people.
The new prophet
We may see in John a new Jeremiah, preaching repentance and bringing sinners back home to God from the Egypt of their sin, even as a new Babylon, Rome, had assumed authority over the land, exercised by means of their Idumaean marionette, Herod. But this John, this Jochanan, does not turn away from the holy prophets to play practical politics, as his namesake did. As his father will say, and as John himself will say, he is the voice from Isaiah, crying out in the wilderness, Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God (Is 40:3; Lk 3:4). So he is also a new Yesha‘yahu—the prophet’s name in Hebrew, meaning, “The Lord has saved.” And the man to whom he shall point is Jesus, Yeshua‘, “He will save.”
That itself is a fascinating point. No other prophet has done such a thing. The prophets have foretold blessings and disasters for Israel. They have advised and admonished kings. They have inveighed against the Edomites and the Moabites and all the enemies of the people. They have been rapt in prophetic ecstasy and seen strange visions—think of Ezekiel and the angel-wheeled chariot of God, or the valley of the dry bones. But no prophet has been entirely given up to preparing the way for a specific man, to whom he is kin, whom he meets, whom he speaks to, and to whose mission he resigns himself, saying, He must increase, but I must decrease (Jn 3:30). John is therefore the last and the greatest of the prophets, of whom we must say, with Jesus, that among those born of women none is greater than John; yet he who is least in the Kingdom of God is greater than he (Lk 7:28), and that surely John was one who humbled himself utterly, and who has in his humility been exalted (Lk 14:11).
Morning has broken
Once he has affirmed the child’s name, Zechariah finds he can speak again, and he bursts into a Hebrew (or Aramaic) poem of praise, which the evangelist Luke reports to his readers in Greek. You can, of course, read his canticle in your Magnificat, inside the back cover, so I needn’t repeat it here. Instead, I will focus on a few important points.
One is that it really is a magnificent song for the morning, for the dawn from on high shall break upon us/ to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death. Zechariah too is thinking about the Messiah, about to appear, as it would be absurd to suppose that Mary spoke to Elizabeth about Jesus while keeping the good priest in the dark. For the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined, as to us a child is born, to us a son is given (Is 9:1, 5). The Hebrew for deep darkness is in fact tzal-maweth, “the shadow of death,” the same as in the beloved psalm, when David says to God, though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, you are with me (Ps 23:4). The Hebrew for dwelt is yoshebey, literally, “sat.” Can you imagine that? It is one thing to walk through the valley of the shadow of death. At least you aim to get through it. It is worse to sit there, apparently without any hope.
Then comes the dawn
Our word in English doesn’t do justice to the ancient tongues. In Luke’s Greek, the dawn is the anatole, the rising, springing; Latin has the same sense in oriens. Latin origo is, literally, a spring of water, and hence “source,” “origin.” When in prayer we face the east, the direction of the dawn, we are symbolically turning toward the rising sun, and no Christian can do so without remembering the Lord who rose from the dead on the morning of the third day. Zechariah did not know it, I suppose, and even Jeremiah—The Lord shall rise!—did not know it. But we do. Jeremiah lamented the fall of the old Jerusalem, the City of Peace that knew so little peace. Jesus proclaims the dawning of the new Jerusalem, the city that is itself the peace of God that passes all understanding.
God keeps watch
There’s an odd thing about the verb, epeskepsetai, that Luke uses for the dawn. We say that morning “breaks,” “rises,” “shines,” and so on, but Luke actually says that it “watches over us” or “visits us” or, we might say, “looks after us.” It’s the same Greek word, epeskepsato, he has already used when Zechariah says that God has visited and redeemed his people.
And that reverses the usual direction of the looking. We are not people who find God because we have searched hard for him. We are people whom God has found: he has been looking after us. The dawn, then, is like an eye. Or like a shepherd, or a guardian. For the same Luke, accompanying Paul on his missionary adventures, knew that each church he established had to be left in the care of an episkopos, an overseer, a watcher-after—that’s our English word “bishop.”
We sometimes fear—or foolishly hope—that God does not see us. But consider: the Lord who caused the dawn to know its place (Jb 38:12) is ever here, now, intimately near. A pagan Greek or Roman might think what he will, and none of the Olympian frauds would know the better or would care. The pagan has to shout to get the attention of his gods. So Elijah mocked the priests of Baal, telling them to cry louder, as Baal might be daydreaming, or gone out back because nature was calling (1 Kgs 18:27). We do not need to shout or wave our arms to attract God’s attention. The reverse is true. We stop up our ears and hoodwink our eyes. When God breaks through our darkness, it is not just ignorance or unhappiness that he brightens. It is our willed darkness, the darkness of sin.
There’s a lot of getting up and setting forth in Zechariah’s song, and that too is a fit thing for the daybreak. John will go before the Lord to prepare his way, and the Lord himself will guide our feet into the way of peace. I hear the important Hebrew word derek, “path,” “way,” whispering to me from behind the English and the Greek. For my ways, says God, are higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts (Is 55:9). And there is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death (Prv 16:25).
We want to walk in the way of the Lord, and what is that way? I’ll suggest one feature of it here. Zechariah says that John will give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins. The Hebrew verb salach is always used of God: only God genuinely forgives or can forgive. But Luke’s Greek gives us a fine image. When God forgives us our sins, he sends them away. “Get lost,” we might hear him saying, giving our debts their marching orders.
If God has done that for us, must we not also do that for others? The Lord says so, and the word Luke uses there is the same. We are to forgive those who are in our debt (Lk 11:4), just as we beg God to forgive our sins, telling them to be off, to go away.
Well then, fellow Christians in the morning, let us be up and on our way, and let us travel light, not carrying our worries or our grudges on our backs. The Baptist points the way.
Anthony Esolen is professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts in New Hampshire, translator and editor of Dante’s Divine Comedy (Random House), and author of four volumes of essays, How the Church Has Changed the World (Magnificat).