December-January 2019: Lectio Divina
Lectio Divina (Hymns in Luke’s Gospel)
Breaking out of Prose and into Praise with Luke
Lectio: What the Word says in itself
Of the four Evangelists, Luke is the most polished writer. His Gospel opens with a long, elegant, flowing Greek sentence that even in translation, towers above the more humble prose in which most of the New Testament is written. It is all the more telling, then, that Luke’s Gospel is the one that most clearly points to the limitations of prose.
Some things just can’t be expressed in ordinary language. If the troubadour standing beneath the beloved’s window cannot sing, then the least he will do is express himself poetically; what he will not do is confine himself to the common patterns of everyday speech.
In the opening chapters of Luke’s Gospel, the Good News is simply too good for common prose – even for exalted prose. We’re not told that Mary sings her Magnificat (Lk 1:46-55), but we’re left in no doubt that it is a hymn. For Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, speech is inadequate: only a cry of joy will do, and it’s good to reflect that the words we pray in the ‘Hail Mary’ – ‘Blessed are you among women’ – first came to us as a spontaneous cry rather than a considered comment (Lk 1:43).
Then there is Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband, struck dumb for his scepticism regarding the angel Gabriel’s message. When his speech finally returns, he breaks into the long, poetic utterance we know as the Benedictus (Lk 1:67-79).
Heaven itself validates the impulse of Elizabeth, Mary and Zechariah. On the night of the Saviour’s birth, the light and glory that enveloped the shepherds were followed by the proclamation of the heavenly host: Gloria! – ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of goodwill’ (Lk 2:14).
Completing the hymnic line-out of the early chapters of Luke’s Gospel is Simeon, the elder in the Temple, who has been awaiting the consolation of Israel. Taking the infant Jesus in his arms, he blesses God and utters his Nunc Dimittis: ‘At last, all-powerful Master, you give leave to your servant to go in peace according to your promise’ (Lk 2:28-32).
Meditatio: What the Word says to me/us
It’s a delightful irony that Luke’s language does some of its best work when it is implicitly acknowledging its own limits. At some point, historical detail and considered comment must give way to something deeper, more visceral. When God’s goodness and beauty break in, we can break out. At the very least, we can break out of prose and into poetry and hymn. Our ‘conversation’ with God’s providence is not an exchange of ideas but an exchange of love. On that first Christmas night, as Luke conveys it, heaven is the troubadour, singing to earth.
Luke’s Gospel invites us to delight in the truth that our prayer is not limited to language. Prose is helpful, necessary even; memorised prayers can be a source of comfort – even of delight. But we are not limited by language. Remember that the word ‘infant’ means ‘speechless.’ The infant Jesus, the incarnate but as yet unspeaking Word, reminds us that our often-felt ‘inability’ to pray is not what it seems.
Oratio: What the Word leads me/us to say
We repent, Lord, of any fretfulness regarding the adequacy of our prayer. We rejoice in the beauty of what you bring to pass in the birth of your Son, Jesus. We resolve to pray even when words fail us, confident that we, too, can be caught up in the hymned praise of Mary, Elizabeth, Zechariah, Simeon and the angelic host.
Contemplatio: Being transformed by the Word
As we ponder the hymns of Luke’s Gospel, let us yearn for a taste of what St Bernard expressed in his commentary on the Song of Songs: ‘Only the touch of the Spirit can inspire a song like this, and only personal experience can unfold its meaning.’1 Let us rest in St Paul’s assurance: ‘The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words’ (Rom 8:26).
Actio: Putting the Word in practice
With God’s help, each of us can work against anything – whether in our temperament or in our circumstances – that prevents us from reflecting the joy of the Gospel. Let us seek out opportunities to draw others into the praise of God’s goodness.
1 On the Song of Songs. Sermon One, VI, 11.
Fr Chris Hayden