Advent 2021 turns again to the Gospel of Luke as the primary focus.
The third Gospel conveys the buildup to the birth of Jesus as a story of good news for the masses, including a poor couple seeking refuge in a stable and a band of shepherds.
The third Gospel also prepares readers to ponder the trajectory of the Gospel that has its origins in the history of pilgrims, prophets and kings.
The liturgical calendar functions in many ways.
First of all, it provides an orderly survey of sacred texts and their use in the context of devotion and worship. Personal devotion is enhanced through daily selections from the First and Second Testaments (often referred to as the Old and New Testaments).
The lectionary — and its variations — is shaped by biblical scholars and worship leaders eager to provide guidance for the faithful.
The lectionary also compiles collections of passages that shape the understanding of the church about the continuing drama of God’s presence in history through people, especially the heirs to the promises delivered through Abraham, Sarah and their descendants, physical, moral and spiritual.
Over centuries, the drama of Advent has influenced the art and music of the Christian West. The Gospel of Luke’s imagery and poetry has had a significant impact.
Luke 1-2 includes four canticles: the Magnificat (attributed to Mary, but some ancient texts attribute it to Elizabeth), the Benedictus (attributed to Zechariah, the father of John the Baptizer), the Gloria (a short hymn attributed to the shepherds), and the Nunc Dimittis (attributed to Simeon on the occasion of the circumcision of Jesus and his presentation at the Temple).
All of the traditional titles reflect the Latin translations of the Bible. In each case, the first word of the sacred text — Magnificat, Benedictus, Gloria and Nunc Dimittis — become the standard title of the canticle.
Of the four, Benedictus is the most sophisticated.
The canticle draws from the rich history of Abraham and Sarah (see Luke 1:72-73) and the origin of the covenant promise (Genesis 12:1-3).
It moves quickly to the legacy of David — the font of the monarchy of the chosen king (2 Samuel 7).
Finally, the canticle taps into the prophetic tradition of Isaiah 40, which establishes the expectation for a herald — a forerunner — for the appearance of the Messiah.
Luke is a masterful interpreter of history and texts. He creates a montage that pulls together history, texts, community and liturgy.
Luke provides the earliest soundtrack of the drama of the nativity that is broad enough to include the Baptizer as forerunner and the Bethlehem babe who will be embraced as the Christ.
The canticles lure readers into an understanding of how words alone are insufficient. Luke adds music and history as a way to expand and deepen our understanding of the mysteries of Advent.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series for Advent 2021. One article will be published each week, reflecting on one or more of the Lectionary texts for the coming Sunday of Advent, with a final article published during the week of Christmas. The previous article in the series is:
Advent Lectionary | Hope, the Thing With Feathers | Kelly Belcher
Columbus Roberts professor of theology and chair of the Columbus Roberts Department of Religion in the college of liberal arts at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia.