Summary: Everything we know about Zachariah and Elizabeth is contained in the first chapter of St Luke’s Gospel. The canticles that Luke has them proclaim – the Benedictus and the Magnificat – are Luke’s theological interpretation of the events unfolding, the birth of John the Baptist and the birth of Jesus.
Patrick Duffy touches on these two themes here.
The Roman Martyrology gives this as a feastday of the parents of the Forerunner, John the Baptist. ”God is coming to visit his people and rescue them”
The story in Luke tells of Zachariah’s vision and being struck dumb only to find his tongue again in praise of God’s wonderful deeds after his son is circumcised. This is typical of Old Testament stories that tell of doubt and asking for a sign, that tell how God fulfills the promised visitation of his people (Abraham in Gen 15:8, Gideon in Jg 6:17, Ahaz in Is 7:11 and Hezekiah in Is 38:7).
Old Testament parallels
There are Old Testament parallels also to Elizabeth’s story of barrenness and surprised fertility (Sarah in Gen 18:11, the mother of Samson in Jg 13:2-5 and Hannah, mother of Samuel in 1 Sam 1:5) and proclaim the same theme.
Zachariah and Elizabeth are willing cooperators with God in his design of “tender mercy”. No wonder Zachariah exclaims in the Benedictus:
‘Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel!.
He has visited his people and redeemed them.’
Elizabeth and the Magnificat
Although the tradition has focused on Mary in proclaiming the Magnificat, the full power of this canticle can best be seen when we see it in the context of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth. Surprised pregnancy, which for both at the beginning was a cause of anxiety, now becomes a source of their solidarity. The Magnificat is really the song of both women. It is the most revolutionary song ever sung. It is a song of bouleversement, of total reversal of fortunes, of collapsing thrones and humbled princes, of the raising up of the poor and the lowly.
My soul glorifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God, my Saviour
….He puts forth his arm in strength and scatters the proud-hearted.
He casts down the mighty from their thrones and raises the lowly.
He fills the hungry with good things, sends the rich away empty.