The seasoned Anglican, or other tradition of Christianity also steeped in liturgy, will have an interesting experience this morning: the Canticle of Zechariah is in the New Testament Lesson! On a practical lesson that means you should replace that Canticle with a different one in Morning Prayer today; prior Prayer Book tradition recommends the Jubilate, Psalm 100, which can be found a couple pages earlier in the Morning Prayer service, on page 15 of the 2019 Book of Common Prayer. Normally the Canticle of Zechariah, or Benedictus, should not be replaced, remaining a static ingredient in the Daily Office of Morning Prayer.
Experientially, though, this is where things get interesting. If you pray the Daily Office with any regularity, you’ll be used to the translation of the Canticle of Zechariah in the liturgy (whichever one you happen to use), and thus will be reading the awkwardly-different wording for it in your regular Bible today. But that’s a good thing. Every now and then it’s helpful to try a different translation of the Bible, as it can give different insights into the breadth and depth of meaning of the text. You might want to pursue the rabbit trail of the subject of Bible translation; here are two videos:
Anyway, with that in mind, let’s glance at a couple examples where the English Standard Version of the Bible (ESV) and the 2019 Prayer Book give us different takes on the Canticle of Zechariah, or Benedictus.
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people
Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; he has come to his people and set them free.
The ESV uses the word “redeemed” where our Prayer Book renders it “set them free.” Both of these terms are, of course, helpful. “Redeem” is a key biblical term and it’s important to note it and retain it, as the Apostles did as they appropriated Old Testament language into their own writings. But it’s also helpful to tease out the various meanings of redemption, and being set free is one of those aspects. It sounds rather clinical, or even businesslike, to say God redeemed us. To say he set us free carries a lot more emotional relatability. So it’s quite appropriate that our formal Bible translation says “redeem” while our liturgy is more poetic.
to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant,
He promised to show mercy to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant.
One of the features of modern English compared to Early Modern English and many other languages (especially Koine Greek) is that we like short sentences today. The ESV tries very hard to preserve the Greek run-on sentence, and that’s great – it helps the reader notice the connectedness of the front half of this canticle, even if it makes it harder to read at first. But in the course of the liturgy, we want to be able to offer up this song-prayer with ease and beauty, so almost every verse is made into its own sentence.
to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins,
To give his people knowledge of salvation, by the forgiveness of their sin.
In both cases, this verse is connected to the previous as part of a larger sentence; this is what Zechariah’s child, John the Baptist, would go on to do as the Prophet of the Most High. The word order of these two translations is slightly different, but the main difference is in the preposition of the second half: “in” or “by” the forgiveness of their sin(s). Prepositions like these can be very tricky. Sometimes we use them loosely and think little of them. Sometimes we make Really Big Deals about the little nuanced differences between them. Seeing two different prepositions used here, therefore, helps clue us in to how we might best handle its meaning. In the liturgical text, people are given knowledge of salvation BY the forgiveness of their sin; and the ESV translation says knowledge of salvation comes IN the forgiveness of sins. So the act or reality of forgiveness is something of an instrument for bring about salvation… IN and BY the cross, for example, Jesus enacts the salvation of the world, the forgiveness of sins.
Anyway, this is just a fun opportunity to experience this text in a different translation than we’re probably used to. Plus there’s also the dynamic of reading a canticle as a Scripture Lesson rather than as a Canticle on its own. I’ve noted something of that dynamic in a previous entry you’re welcome to look back on, too.