Between Benedictus and Magnificat
January 26, 2020
The Shrine of the Visitation, one of the most decorative and floral in all of the Holy Land, is a sacred place of beauty and quiet where pilgrims from around the world come to meditate on that most solemn meeting. As those two mothers, Elizabeth and Mary, meet, so too do their sons, John, the precursor of the Messiah, and Jesus the Messiah who brings salvation to the world. Never has the world witnessed such rapturous joy at any other meeting, for from this encounter, the world hears echoing that most sublime canticle, the Magnificat: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God, my savior…”
Just across the valley, in this “hill country” of Ein Karem, stands the Church of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. It was here, in this spot, that Elizabeth gave birth to her son. Zechariah, who doubted that such a miracle could be performed, was struck dumb until the circumcision of his son on the eighth day when he exclaimed what the boy’s name was to be: “John.” When his lips were opened, Zechariah sang a prayer that would be uttered for centuries to come, the Benedictus: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel. For He has come to His people and set them free…”
Especially for us as seminarians, what is special about these two sites is the relationship between these two most sacred canticles. Every day, all across the entire world, all priests, religious, seminarians, and some of the faithful pray the Divine Office, the official prayer of the Church. At every Morning Prayer, the Benedictus (also known as the “Canticle of Zechariah”) is prayed. At every Evening Prayer, the Magnificat is prayed. Here, within the valley of Ein Karem, these two choruses of praise come to life.
As the morning dawns, sunlight streams across the sky and fills the Western bank of the hills in its warmth. The Church of the Nativity of St. John is illumined as choirstalls across the world chant those same words spoken from the mouth of Zechariah. Yet, we return to our work as the day draws long under the noonday sun; we go about our lives and travel on a pilgrimage through this “valley of tears.” But there is hope! In the evening, the sunlight has shifted to shine golden rays on the Eastern bank of the hills where the Church of the Visitation is quietly tucked away.
These two great prayers of the Church stand within the liturgical bookends of our day, Lauds and Vespers. So too, here in the serene valley of Ein Karem, do these most ancient shrines stand as natural monuments to the beginning and ending of our day. Standing on the slopes of this ancient hill country, if one quietly listens with the ear of their heart, they can almost hear the faint chant of Zechariah’s Benedictus resounding across the hills, only to be answered by Our Lady’s Magnificat in response.
Brother Nathan Ford
Canons Regular of St. John Cantius