Each morning, the universal Church has the option to pray Lauds, often called Morning Prayer. Through this practice, we greet the day and begin by dedicating ourselves and all of our actions to the Lord. Typically, praying Lauds consists of praying an opening Psalm, then two more Psalms with a Scripture reading (called a canticle) between them. After a reading from Scripture and a period of meditation, we conclude with a few prayers; however, with those prayers, we also pray the Canticle of Zechariah from the Gospel of St. Luke.
This Canticle is taken from Zechariah’s prayer of thanksgiving for his newborn son, John, who will grow up to be the herald of the Savior. It’s beautiful to read, especially when we reach the celebration of the birth of Saint John the Baptist in the Liturgical calendar.
Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel;
he has come to his people and set them free.
He has raised up for us a mighty savior,
born of the house of his servant David.
Through his holy prophets he promised of old
that he would save us from our enemies,
from the hands of all who hate us.
He promised to show mercy to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant.
This was the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
to set us free from the hands of our enemies,
free to worship him without fear,
holy and righteous in his sight all the days of our life.
You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,
to give his people knowledge of salvation
by the forgiveness of their sins.
In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.
One part that’s always puzzled me about this prayer, though, is the line about being free to worship without fear. The fulfillment of this was supposed to be after the Messiah came and redeemed us. But when I look at history, Christians were persecuted from the earliest days of the Church. And when I read the news today, I still see Christians persecuted in the most horrible ways imaginable. People living in fear for their lives. People escaping in the dead of night with nothing but the clothes on their backs, carrying their children thousands of miles in hopes of finding a safe harbor to practice their faith in peace.
Is this how it is to be free to worship without fear?
But then, contemplating the canticle a bit more, I realize what God means by this. He doesn’t mean that we won’t fear our enemies or the powers that be who might persecute us or seek to kill us. What God means is that we won’t fear death if it comes to it. If we stay close to Him, we won’t fear martyrdom if it comes to that.
How do I know that? Because I have the witness of thousands of martyr saints throughout the last 2000 years. From the great Saints Peter and Paul to Saints Perpetua and Felicity to Saint Lawrence to the English martyrs like Saints Thomas More and John Fisher to the martyrs of Japan to Saint Charles Lwanga and his companions. Down through the ages, there have been people who would rather die than deny Christ, who have joyfully gone to their deaths as martyrs when governments have declared themselves to be enemies of the Catholic Faith.
When I pray the Canticle of Zechariah each morning, it’s these saints who come to mind, who are praying for me to be strong in my own faith and to worship without fear. To worship without fear of what might happen to me, whether it’s ridicule or becoming an outcast or even torture and death.