For the Salvation of the People (Or, How Liturgy Reads the Bible)

I’m often asked, particularly in catechetical contexts, to offer a concrete example of how the liturgical texts of the Orthodox Church can illuminate a given Biblical text. (The Church’s liturgical texts, no less than the Patristic writings, are rich in theological readings and other applications of Scripture; they are, for this reason, one of the chief sources that convey to us an authentically Orthodox approach to Holy Writ.) Some time ago, while singing the Vespers of the Feast of the Conception of St John the Baptist (Sep. 23/Nov.10; cf. St Luke 1:5-25), I found a wonderful example of this, which indeed helped me understand in new light a puzzling Biblical text.

The Service for this Feast (poetically) puts the following words in the mouth of St Zechariah, the father of St John, as he disputed with the angel who appeared to him while he discharged his priestly duties:

“Strange dost thou appear to me in aspect and manner; strange also in words and tidings,” answered Zechariah. “For I have come to ask for the salvation of the people, not to gain a child, as thou dost announce. I find thee contrary to my requests and I suspect that thou mayest not speak the truth; for how will what thou sayest be confirmed? The members of Elizabeth are deadened, and my own old age now counsels disbelief.” (2nd sticheron at “Lord, I Have Called”)

Why did St Zechariah doubt the words of God’s angel? Why was it so hard for him to accept the announcement that the God who had made Abraham and Sarah fruitful in their old age would also cause him and Elizabeth to have a child? The Church calls our attention to the context in which the angelic announcement took place: Zechariah, a priest of the division of Abijah, had gone into the Temple to offer incense to the Lord (cf. Exodus 30:1-8); his priestly job there was to pray for the salvation of the people. He could not understand why the angel would say “Your prayer has been heard” and then proceed to tell him about the child to be born to him and his wife in old age. As far as he could tell, this announcement was only a distraction from his priestly duty to stand and intercede before the Lord on behalf of the people. In spite of the angel’s opening words, he could not see that the answer to the prayer he offered right there and then for the salvation of the people and his lifelong prayer for progeny were intimately connected; that, in fact, praying for the salvation of the people was praying for himself and Elizabeth to have a child, and vice versa. And so the righteous Zechariahknowing who he is, where he is, and what he is supposed to be doing there doubts the angelic message, which seemingly contradicts everything he knows about all three of these things. But as Zechariah later realized, this was not so; because while his son would not be himself the Hope of Israel, he would be “called the prophet of the Most High, for [he would] go before the Lord to prepare his ways” (cf. St Luke 1:76).

(On a side note related to the larger subject at hand, I’m thinking of contributing a short essay to one Mr Nick Norelli’s 2008 Trinity Blogging Summit on Liturgy’s Trinitarian reading of the Bible in the Service for the Feast of Theophany. So if this topic interests you, you might want to watch out for that, as well.)

2 responses to “For the Salvation of the People (Or, How Liturgy Reads the Bible)

  1. I pray that your thinking leads to doing — the summit needs you! It wouldn’t feel complete without an Orthodox voice!


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