There is a traditional Christian answer… It is not clear, however, that the language of that answer any longer communicates what it was intended to convey. Hence we have embarked on a process of reconstruction, attempting to get hold of the reality that the traditional language originally engaged.
Thank you, William P. Loewe, for writing down what was on my mind as I worked on my translation of the Canticle of Zechariah (which I published back on Christmas Eve). Here he is speaking of the meaning of the Resurrection as salvation from sin, but the quote really does apply much more broadly than that. Translation really is more of an art than a skill; obviously one needs skill to know what the words mean and how they work together in grammar and syntax, but translation seeks to communicate not just words but the entire frame of mind and way of life that generated them. And for us Christians it has happened, we must confess, that the oft-used and -abused words such as “redemption,” “salvation,” “justice” and “mercy” have come to simply assume meanings that are no longer actively known, and as a result they are not effectively communicated. This is a problem that I am seeking to at least alleviate as I make my way through a daunting self-imposed project: a reading guide to the Four Gospels, with special attention paid to the beautiful hymns set down by Luke and John.
The Canticle of Zechariah, from Luke 1:68-79, is sung at the naming of John the Baptist eight days after his birth. The Gospel account compiled by Luke from various sources, including everything from personal accounts to the sermons and songs of the nascent Church, tells that John’s father Zechariah had been struck mute for disbelieving the angel Gabriel, who had announced to him that he and his wife Elizabeth would become the parents of a great and spirit-filled man named John. He was to remain mute until the events told him by the angel had come to pass. At John’s circumcision, Zechariah confirmed in writing that the child was to be named John, and at once his mouth was opened and he began to praise God. The story of these events circulated in that area of Judah, with Zechariah’s shouts of joy and praise eventually taking the form of the hymn that is found in the Gospel.
Luke was a Gentile writing in Greek, relating stories and events enmeshed in Judaism and trying to communicate them to a non-Jewish audience. As a result, both the Gospel that bears his name and its “sequel” the Acts of the Apostles are filled with explanations and call-backs to Jewish life and culture. This hymn is no exception and follows in a great line of similar hymns from the Old Testament. It is in that spirit of communication that I have made my very non-standard translation of the hymn, and have desired to share it in this Christmas season.
There are three differences in my translation that I would like to highlight now. What follows may be a bit dense, as it comes more from art than skill, and for that I apologize in advance. But it is my attempt to, as Loewe said, get at the reality behind the traditional language. My hope is to provide a fuller picture of what Jesus’ birth means, and that here as before John may pave the way for Jesus.
YHWH: Where most translations use the word “Lord” for the Latin Dominus, Greek Kyrios – and rightly so, for that is what it means – I have taken a step further back. Dominus and Kyrios are substitutes for the four letters that represent the mysterious Name of God. By the time the Old Testament was being translated into Greek, Jewish law had forbidden God’s Name to be spoken aloud except by the high priest, and even then only on the Day of Atonement within the inner sanctum of the Temple. So when the Name occurred in the reading of Scripture, the most common substitute used was the word adonai, the Hebrew word meaning “lord.” When the Scriptures were translated into Greek, Kyrios was simply inserted in these places instead of the Name; likewise when Saint Jerome translated the Greek into Latin, he used Dominus. I’ve inserted the letters of the Name into this Gospel passage because it is important, I think, to remember that the God of the New Testament is the God of the Old, that the stories are all connected in time and history, that when the redemptive events begin YHWH is still the God of Israel, whether they are calling Him by name or not, and Israel is still His people. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is the God of the Exodus, is the God of the Israelites, is the God of the Jerusalem Temple, and is the God of the Church, First Person of the Holy Trinity.
deliverance: In Latin salutis, translated from the Greek soteria, both words carry the connotation of preservation, being kept whole and safe and healthy, being removed from things that may cause harm to one’s well-being. Keeping this connotation in mind can give us a better idea of what the Jewish, and Christian, idea of salvation really meant in the first century A.D., and what it still encapsulates today whether we realize it or not. To the people of YHWH, salvation is deliverance from evil, liberation from the threat of harm, rescue from “our enemies and the hand of all who hate us,” as Zechariah goes on to say. For a people who had been rescued from slavery in Egypt, been fractured by tribal schism, been exiled to foreign lands, and been subjugated to the empires of the Greeks and the Romans, all while trying to maintain their sense of identity, salvation was the goal ever before them. It was also something they knew was unattainable through their own efforts. As Psalm 49 declares, “No man…can pay to God his own ransom. The redemption of his soul is costly.” The Messiah hinted at throughout prophecy, then, would be a new Moses who would lead Israel through a new Exodus, a new Son of David who would govern them and keep them safe for all time, “unafraid” to “worship Him in integrity and righteousness.” In this way the words of Jesus Himself when He spoke of coming persecutions and the destruction of the Temple take on their truly essential yet radical meaning: “You will be hated by all because of my name, but the one who perseveres to the end will be saved” (Mark 13:13).
compassion: This may be the most important word in the hymn, and reveals the way in which YHWH accomplishes deliverance, in which an almighty God brings salvation. Sometimes rendered “mercy” or “pity,” or even “loving kindness,” the word in Latin is misericordia, itself a translation of the Greek eleos; the Jews call it khesed. As I have come to understand it, the word describes the disposition of one party to do a favor for another party that asks it. In other words it is a going over and above what you are obliged to do. Everyone has and displays this quality in differing degrees. But with God this quality, like all His other qualities, is infinite. He is always ready, willing and able to give more than what His Law binds Him to. God easily could have let the covenant with the Israelites at Sinai be the end of it: “I have brought you to safety and freedom, and if you obey my commands I will keep you there.” He could have let his covenant with David be the last word too: “I will raise a house for you, and your son will build a house for me, and I shall be a father to him.” But no – throughout the Scriptures we read of God making deals and performing wonders for those who ask of Him. The psalms recall these events and proclaim Him a God who is “slow to anger and of great kindness,” “full of compassion.” And in the fullness of time, through the depths of His compassion, He set in motion the events that would save the human race. In an act of unfathomable humility, He sent His very Self, His consubstantial Word, the active agency of His divine Wisdom in the cosmos, not just to assume human form but to take flesh and to be born and to live and to die. Jesus of Nazareth, Whom we call Christ and Lord and Second Person of God, is the incarnation and culmination of YHWH’s eternally compassionate deliverance. That is what we remember and celebrate and believe at this solemn time of year, and why we call it the Lord‘s Nativity. And that is what the Canticle of Zechariah hints at when it suggests that John will “give knowledge of deliverance to His people by the pardoning of their sins.”
It’s been said that the story of Christmas is a “love story,” another term that suffers from the problem of increasingly assumed yet unknown meaning. But when we start to dig a little deeper, and forget everything that we thought we knew, we start to realize how deep that love is.
Blessed be YHWH the God of Israel,
because He has looked upon His people and accomplished their release.
P.S. – If you can, grab a copy of Loewe’s The College Student’s Introduction to Christology. It’s a brilliant way to start to unlocking some of the more “technical” mysteries of the faith.