XII Three Hebrew New Testament Hymns
A Hebrew Catholic Perspective
Luke 1: 5 to 2: 40; St. Matthew 1: 18 — 25 and St. Matthew 2: 1 — 23
“An Abbreviated Paraphrase in Continuous Narrative”
The Presentation of Yeshua in the Temple
Three Hebrew New Testament Hymns
“An Abbreviated Paraphrase in Continuous Narrative”.
Early in St. Lukeꞌs Gospel we find the narrative connected with the coming of the Saviour, our Lord Jesus Christ. In the first two chapters, three very devout and holy Jews proclaim the praises of God at the unfolding of His Plan, so long pointed towards by the Prophets. Their three canticles of praise (or non-metrical hymns) are wonderful gems of Hebrew spiritual outpouring, and are worthy of every Christian learning them by heart. From the earliest days of the Church they have been recited every day during prayer: morning, evening or night, corresponding to the traditional prayer-times maintained by Jesus, as established by the Patriarchs:
Abraham: Morning prayer (Canticle of Zechariah)
Isaac: Afternoon (Evening prayer) (Canticle of Mary)
( before sunset. )
Jacob: Night prayer (Canticle of Simeon)
These three Biblical prayers are:—
Canticle of Mary (The Magnificat) Luke 1: 46 — 65
Canticle of Zechariah (The Benedictus) Luke 1: 68 — 79
Canticle of Simeon (The Nunc Dimittis) Luke 2: 29 — 32
(Click on desired canticle for a printable copy of the text)
These hymns of praise and thanksgiving to God are so precious we have presented them in the context of the story as recorded by St. Luke. This provides a kind of setting like three gems in a beautiful ring. Our narrative extends from St. Luke 1: 5 to 2: 40. The focus, of course, is on the coming of the Messiah, and the three canticles demonstrate the importance of this great moment in Salvation History, in a truly Hebrew manner.
To render this account of the infancy of Jesus all a little more complete, we have added first, the short account of the incident involving the three religious scholars usually referred to as the “The Magi,” (in St. Matthew 2: 1 — 12), secondly, “The Slaying of the Infants,” (St. Matthew 2: 13 — 18; and thirdly, “Upon the death of Herod,” (in St. Matthew 2: 19 — 31).
The accounts are suitable for meditation any time during the year.
The Story of Three Hebrew Canticles
I Mary’s Canticle
Archangel Gabriel Appears to Zechariah (Luke 1: 5 — 25)
The story of Maryꞌs glorious hymn of praise begins, in fact, with the parents of St. John the Baptist.
In the dark days when Herod, unfortunately misnamed “the Great,” was reigning in Palestine, there dwelt in a little town in Judea a priest named Zechariah, with his wife Elizabeth. They were both devout people, and faithful to all God’s commandments; but their lives were lonely, for no child had been born to them, and old age was beginning to creep upon them. Now the time came round for Zechariah to take his turn of service, like the other priests, at the great Temple in Jerusalem, and at the hour of the morning sacrifice he went into the Holy Place to sprinkle incense upon the fire that burned on the golden altar, in the light of the seven-branched candlestick (the Menorah). In the court outside, the great multitude of worshippers waited, while within, behind the embroidered curtain, Zechariah strewed the incense upon the flames as God commanded, and the sweet-scented smoke of the offering curled slowly upwards to the roof.
Suddenly through the thin blue haze, Zechariah saw the form of a great angel standing by the right side of the golden altar. Fear and trembling came upon him at the sight; but, as he shook with dread, the strange visitor spoke to him, “Fear not, Zechariah,” he said, “your prayer has been heard; your wife Elizabeth shall bear a son, whose name shall be John. He will bring joy and gladness to you; and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in God’s sight, and the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him. Like a new Elijah he will turn the hearts of men and women to their God, and make ready a people for the Lord.” “How shall I believe such a message,” said Zechariah, doubting, “for my wife and I are both growing old?” More sternly the Angel spoke to him again — “I am Gabriel, and stand before God’s face; I have been sent to tell you this joyful news. Because you have not believed, your speech shall be taken from you, until the time when my words have been fulfilled.”
Outside in the court of the Temple the people waited, wondering what could have kept the priest so long. Then the broidered curtain was drawn aside, and Zechariah came forth. Silently he lifted his hand in blessing, and they saw that his lips were sealed and presumed that some wondrous vision had appeared to him behind the veil. He went about his priestly duties, as required of him, for the appointed seven days without speaking, and then returned back to the relaxed quietness of his own home.
The Annunciation To Mary (Luke 1: 26 — 38)
Six months came and went, and Elizabeth knew that the Angel’s promise would soon be fulfilled. Once more the great Angel Gabriel was sent forth with a message from God. Far in the north of Palestine in the village of Nazareth which nestles among the hills of Galilee, there dwelt a young woman named Mary. She was cousin to Elizabeth, and was betrothed to Joseph, who, though only a carpenter, belonged to the royal line of David. To her also, as to Zechariah, there came the vision of God’s mighty messenger.
“Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women.”
And when Maryꞌs heart was troubled, and she wondered what so strange a greeting might mean, Gabriel spoke again.
“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found grace with God. Behold you will conceive in your womb and will bring forth a son; and you will call His name Yeshua, that is, Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will be king over the House of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
But Mary said to the Angel, “How can this possibly happen, since I have no relationship with a man?”
And the Angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and the Holy One to be born will be called the Son of God. And Elizabeth your cousin also has conceived a son in her old age, and she who was considered barren is now in her sixth month; for nothing will be impossible with God.
And Mary said, “Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” And the Angel departed from her, carrying her reply to the Heavenly Throne.
Mary Visits Elizabeth (Luke 1: 39 — 56)
Mary wanted to tell her wonderful news to someone, and who more fitting than her good cousin, whose name was linked with her own in Gabriel’s message. So she set out and travelled to the village of Zechariah and Elizabeth, among the Judean hills. But there was no need to tell her story. At the sound of her voice Elizabeth clasped her in her arms.
“Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And how have I deserved that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”
Then the Spirit of great joy came upon Mary, and her response came forth from her in the form of a beautiful canticle praising God for the special privilege He had bestowed, not just on her, but her people as a nation.
Because he has
Because he who is
And His mercy is from
He has shown might
He has put down the
(As he promised our
So there was great joy in the peaceful home of Zechariah and Elizabeth, where the two cousins dwelt together, and talked frequently about the wonders unfolding in their lives. After three months Mary returned to her home in Nazareth.
II Zechariah’s Canticle
Birth of St. John the Baptist (Luke 1: 57 — 66)
In due time Elizabeth’s son was born, and all her friends and neigh¬bours rejoiced with her in God’s great goodness. On the eighth day, as the custom was, they were all gathered for the feast of the child’s circumcision, when his name should be given to him. They would have called him Zechariah after his father. However his mother interjected:
“Definitely not; he shall be called John.”
“No,” said the neighbours, “none of your friends has ever borne that name.”
They turned to Zechariah and asked him by signs what his son’s name should be; and, still unable to talk, the priest wrote on his writing tablet,
“John is his name.”
In that moment his lips were opened again, and he gave thanks to God. And everyone who heard was filled with wonder.
“What will this child become?” they said one to another.
Zechariah Blesses God (Luke 1: 67 — 80)
But Zechariah, as he looked on the face of his son, was filled with a prophet’s joy at the vision of the future. He then burst forth, blessing God in a truly priestly hymn, echoing the ancient prophecies about the coming reign of justice and holiness, and announcing the beginning of their fulfilment.
Blessed be to the Lord,
As he promised through
He has fulfilled his
In the Oath to Abraham our
That, delivered from the
In holiness and justice before
And you, O child, shall be
To give his people knowledge
Because of the
To shine on those who sit in
# Horn of salvation — Historically, the horn of some animals has been used as a flask or vessel,
and this has led to a corresponding idea of a spiritual container. The horn is also a symbol of
great strength and power. The phrase ‘horn of salvation’ was used by Zechariah who, in blessing
God, proclaimed prophetically the imminent arrival of the Son of the Most High. This ‘horn’ will
be a vessel of powerful, effective salvation. For God to “raise up” the horn is to signal ultimate
victory over the enemy of mankind. (J. L. McKenzie, S. J. and Biblestudytools.com)
So the child grew. He was strong, both physically and spiritually. He loved to be alone as a solitary in the desert, until the day when he came forth as God’s messenger to Israel.
Marriage of Mary and Joseph (Matthew 1: 18 — 25)
The Scriptures have preserved a very interesting incident in the lead-up to the birth of the Lord. This is how St. Matthew recorded it:
And this was the manner of Christ’s birth. His mother, Mary, was
espoused to Joseph, but they had not yet come together, when she
was found to be with child, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Whereupon her husband, Joseph (for he was a right-minded man,
and would not have her put to open shame), was for sending her
away in secret. But hardly had this thought come to his mind when
an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, and said, “Joseph,
son of David, do not be afraid to take your wife, Mary, to yourself,
for it is by the power of the Holy Spirit that she has conceived this
child; and she will bear a son, whom you shall call Yeshua, that is,
Jesus, for he is to save his people from their sins”.
All this was so ordained to fulfill the word which the Lord spoke by
his prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and shall bear
a son, and they shall call him Emmanuel” (which means, “God with us”).
And Joseph awoke from sleep, and did as the Angel of the Lord had
bidden him, taking his wife to himself. He had not been intimate with
her when she bore a son to whom he gave the name of Yeshua — Jesus.
The Birth of Our Lord (Luke 2: 1 — 7)
Now at this time Augustus, the Roman Emperor, sent forth a decree that a census was to be taken of all the people in his mighty empire. Each household was to be registered in its own native village; and so, all over the empire, people who had settled in other towns and villages were travelling back to their old homes for enrolment.
Since Joseph belonged to the house of David, he and Mary had to journey to Bethlehem from Nazareth; so they travelled south¬wards over the crowded, dusty roads, till at last, when Mary was ready to faint with weariness, they saw in the evening light the walls and house-tops of the little hill-town. Thankfully they made it up to the gate of the nearest low-priced inn, hoping to find rest, and a little comfort for Mary. However as they were soon to see, all the world was also travelling, and the little shelters round the open courtyard of the inn were crowded already with more fortunate wayfarers who arrived earlier. There was no time to pick and choose, and Joseph had to find shelter for his wife somewhere, whatever place it might be. There was a cattle shed, with its rack and manger, close at hand, and straw to lie down upon.
The weary pair carried their few belongings to that humble lodging, just thankful to get some rest, even if it were among cattle. And there, in the darkness of the night, with the travellersꞌ animals standing around, Mary’s son was born, and laid in a manger, that is a, feeding trough. He, who was the Son of the Most High — the Saviour and King of the world — a strange welcome for the newborn King!
Announcement By the Angel to the Shepherds (Luke 2: 8 — 20)
Out on the hillside beyond the town walls, shepherds were keeping watch over their flocks that night, as David had often done long ago in his happy boyhood. Suddenly the darkness was parted by a beam of light from heaven, and down its golden radiance there came an Angel of the Lord, till he stood by their side, a magnificent shining figure. Their hearts stood still with fear; but the awesome presence spoke to them quietly and reassuringly —
“Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people; for today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign to you: you will find an infant wrapped tightly in strips of cloth, lying in a feeding trough used by the animals.”
The heavenly voice became silent again; but in a moment the whole sky was filled with light and sound, and a great choir of angels sang praise to God — “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men of goodwill.”
The echoing chorus of the angels eventually died away, and darkness came down once more upon the wondering shepherds.
“Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has occurred, which the Lord has made known to us.”
With eager steps they hastened into the village, and there, in the scruffy cattle shed of the inn, they found Mary and Joseph, and newborn King cradled in the animals’ feeding trough. Despite the contrast between what they saw, and the Kingship that they looked for, they doubted nothing of the Angel’s message, but told everyone they met all they had heard concerning the child, so that everyone who heard them marvelled. But Mary stored all these things within her heart, and wonder ever more profoundly, as time went by.
When the child was eight days old, at his circumcision, Joseph and Mary named him as the Angel had directed them before his birth — Yeshua, that is, Jesus, which just means “Saviour.”
III Simeon’s Canticle
Presentation In the Temple and the Purification of Mary (Luke 2: 21 — 24)
Forty days after the birth of her little son, Mary brought the baby Yeshua up to the Temple in Jerusalem, so that he might be presented before the Lord, and that God’s right in him might be acknowledged symbolically by the payment of five silver shekels. For such was the Law in Israel, that for every first-born son this payment should be made. Mary also had to present herself for the ceremony of Purification, and make her thank-offering. Because she and her husband were poor she could only bring with her the smallest offering that the Torah, the Law, al¬lowed — a pair of turtle-doves. The little family was still dwelling in Bethlehem, and from Bethlehem to Jerusalem it is, what for them was a short distance, no more than six miles (8 — 9 kilometres). So Mary carried her son in her arms, and brought him to the top of the stairway of fifteen steps that led to the entrance of the priests’ private enclosure. There she waited till she should be sprinkled with the blood of her sacrifice, as the Law laid down.
The Prophecy of Simeon (Luke 2: 25 — 35)
Now in those days there lived in Jerusalem an elderly man named Simeon. He was a good and holy man, full of God’s Spirit, and ever hoping and praying for the deliverance of Israel. God had told him that he would not die until he had seen the Lord’s Anointed. Many a day he had come to the Temple with his heart full of an unuttered hope that this day he might see the desire of his heart fulfilled. But this day God’s Spirit told him that the hour had arrived; and when he saw the young mother standing, with her child in her arms, he knew in an instant that he stood before the Redeemer, long foretold by the Prophets.
Stepping to Mary’s side, the old white-haired saint gently took the child Jesus in his arms, and poured out his soul in praise to God.
“Now, Lord, you may dismiss your servant
in peace, according to your word;
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
Which you have set before all the nations,
As a light of revelation for the Gentiles
and the glory of your people Israel.”
St. Luke 2: 29 ― 32
Joseph and Mary stood by, marvelling at the words of the venerable saint. Simeon turned to them, and blessed them, and to Mary he said,
“Behold, this child is destined for the fall and for the rise of
many in Israel, and for a sign that will be contradicted. And
your own soul a sword will pierce, that the thoughts of many
hearts may be revealed.”
The Prophetess Anna (Luke 2: 36 — 40)
While he was still speaking, there came into the Temple an eldery woman, named Anna, a holy prophetess eighty-four years old, who spent her days in the Temple, serving God with prayer and fasting. As soon as she saw Simeon with the baby in his arms, she, too, gave thanks to the Lord, and, going forth from God’s House, she spoke of the Child Redeemer to all in Jerusalem who were longing for the deliverance of Israel.
And when Joseph and Mary had fulfilled all things prescribed in the Torah — the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, into their own town of Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong. He was full of wisdom and the grace of God was upon him.
XII. 4 — Additional Note.
St. Luke 1: 5 to 2: 40 and St. Matthew 2: 1 — 23, in continuous narrative.
All over the world — not just Jerusalem or Palestine alone, the hearts and souls of many were longing for, and expecting a Deliverer. In far distant Chaldea, the star-gazers of that ancient land of wisdom searched the vault of heaven night by night for some starry sign that should tell them of the coming of Him who was the Desire of all Nations; and at last the sign was given. Chapter 2 of St. Matthew’s Gospel described their visit and events which followed it.
The Magi (Matthew 2: 1 — 12)
One day there came to Jerusalem from over the Eastern desert a company of very focussed and reverend Magi, bearing with them on their camels costly gifts as if for a king. As they passed the eastward gate of the city they spoke to the captain of the guard. “Where is the small child they called King of the Jews?” they said. “For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.”
The Magi were not “three kings” as is often depicted in Christmas decorations. Nor are they best described as “three wise men”. Magi were high-ranking members of a priestly class of governmental-religious advisors serving the political heads of Media (close to what we understand as Iran and Iraq today). They had a reputation for predicting and interpreting future events, and commenting on the affairs of state.
It was not long before the report of the arrival of the Magi and of their strange question, reached the ears of Herod the King. The grim old tyrant trembled with wrath and fear at the thought of another king in Israel; and all Jerusalem, knowing what Herod’s fear and anger could mean, was troubled with him.
Swiftly the King sent for the chief priests and learned scholars of Israel. “Tell me,” he said, “where your Christ shall be born.” “In Bethlehem of Judea,” they answered, “for thus spoke the prophet Micah in days of old':”
“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
you are by no means least among the leaders of Judah,
for out of you will come a leader
who will shepherd my people Israel’.”
(Micah 5: 1)
Then the wily old tyrant caused them to bring the Magi from the East in secret to his palace, and earnestly questioned them as to when the star appeared. “Go to Bethlehem,” he said, when he had learned all they had to tell. “Search carefully for the young child and when you have found him, let me know, that I also may come and worship him.” But in his evil heart was nothing but the thought of murder.
Thinking no evil, the Magi took their journey southwards to Bethlehem; And as they went, the star which they had seen in the east seemed to shine along their path, until its light fell upon the humble dwelling where the child Jesus lay. At the sight of it, their hearts were filled with joy. Entering the house they saw the child in Mary’s arms, and bending to the ground in front of Him paid Him reverence. Opening their treasures, brought from so far away, they brought forth costly gifts — gold, and frankincense, and myrrh — and laid them at His feet. In time, the Church saw in these three gifts the signs of the Redeemer’s nature and His sacrifice — His kingly state, His divine nature, His human agony.
“O King,” they said,
O King, the gold;
O Man, the myrrh;
O God, accept the incense!”
Then, being warned by God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, the wise men turned home¬wards, and departed into their own country by another way.
The Slaying of the Infants (Matthew 2 13 — 18)
That night, after the Magi had vanished over the hills, Joseph was awakened out of sleep by an angel of the Lord. “Arise,” he said, “and take the young child and his mother; flee into Egypt and dwell there till I tell you to return; for Herod will seek the young child to slay him.” Swiftly and silently Joseph aroused Mary, and the two made preparation for their hurried flight. The ass was saddled, and Mary mounted it, with the sleeping babe in her arms; and with Joseph leading, the little household slipped quietly out of the slumbering town, and took the long road southwards under the twinkling stars. Day after day they journeyed southwards across the great desert until at last they passed the frontier of what had been for Joseph’s people the ancient Land of Bondage, and found protection and a safe home for a while in one of the cities of the Nile Valley.
In Jerusalem Herod waited eagerly for the return of the Magi, gloating over the thought of how he would make a speedy end of the claims of this newborn King. However, one day passed, and another and another, till the old tyrant saw that he, who had mocked the reverence of these men from the East, had himself been mocked by them. His cruel heart swelled with fierce anger. This time he determined to complete his evil design. So he sent forth a troop of his guard to Bethlehem, and there they sought out and slew every child two years old or younger in the town and the country round about. Far and wide that day there echoed over the hills the sound of bitter, terrible weeping; for everywhere mothers were mourning for their little ones so cruelly murdered.
The Holy Family Returns From Shelter in Egypt (Matthew 2: 19 — 23)
In time the savage old king himself passed away to his judgment, maddened by remorse for innumerable crimes. When he was dead and gone, God’s angel spoke once more in a dream to Joseph in Egypt. “Arise,” he said; “and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel; for those who sought the young child’s life are dead.” So once again the husband and wife, with the little child, travelled the long road, and came into Palestine; but not to return to Bethlehem. For Herod’s evil son Archelaus was reigning in his father’s place. Therefore Joseph led Mary and Jesus northwards into Galilee, back to the old home at Nazareth, and there they settled down quietly among their own people.
Blessed be the Most High who entrusted His Son,
Yeshua, into the care of Joseph and Mary.
Our narrative draws from a number of sources which, among others, include:
1. The Gospel of St. Luke, by Joseph Dillersberger (Salsburg, 1939)
2. Translatorꞌs Handbook on the Gospel of St. Luke,
by Roiling and Swellengrebel, UBS. 1971.
3. A Rabbinic Commentary on The New Testament, by Samuel Tobias Lachs,
Ktav Publishing House, ADL of Bꞌnai Bꞌrith, New York, 1987.
4. The Gospel Story, by Ronald Cox, C.M., S.T.L., S.S.L.
5. Meditations and Devotions, by John Henry Cardinal Newman.
6. The Bible Story, by James Baike.
7. Jerome Bible Commentary, Prentice Hall, 1968.
8. Jerusalem Bible,
Darton, Longman and Todd, London 1966.
9. A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scriptures,
Thomas Nelson and Sons, London 1953.
10. The Whole Story, by Martin J. Healy.
11. The Holy Bible, Confraternity Text,
Good Will Publishers, North Carolina, 1960.
12. The New Testament, Part 1 — The Four Gospels,
translated by James A. Kleist, S.J. (1952).
13. A God Who Speaks, by Jaques Guillet, S.J.,
Gill and Macmillan, Dublin, 1979.
14. A New Testament Commentary by Ronald Knox,
Sheed and Ward, New York, 1954.
Base texts for the narrative are The Gospel Story,
The Bible Story, and Jerusalem Bible.