He has raised up for us a horn of salvation, in the house of his servant David (Luke 1:69).
These are the words proclaimed by Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, after nine long months of silence. Nine months to ponder the promises of God given through the angel Gabriel.
At the very moment of proclaiming that his newborn son will be named “John,” Zechariah was flooded with the Holy Spirit and burst into praise – in words that many of us proclaim each morning in the Liturgy of the Hours. Unfortunately, our English version loses something in translation, saying “He has raised up for us a mighty savior…”
By contrast, the original text speaks of a “horn of salvation.” Why?
If the name John (“God is gracious”) was significant and willed by God, so much more the holy name of Jesus, at which every creature must bow – those in heaven, those on earth, and even those in the infernal regions (Philippians 2:10-11).
The name “Jesus” in Hebrew is Yeshua – the very same name as “Joshua” in the Old Testament. The name means “savior.” Joshua was a figure of salvation – giving us a foretaste of Jesus, the true savior of the world.
Joshua led the Israelites in the battle of Jericho (see Joshua 5 and 6). But more truthfully, it was God himself, through his mighty messenger, who won the battle. As Joshua approaches Jericho, he sees a fierce warrior, drawn sword in hand, and asks him, “Are you one of us, or one of our enemies?” And the warrior replies, “Neither. I am the commander of the army of the Lord: now I have come” (Joshua 5:13-14).
We could debate whether this messenger was Michael the Archangel, or the Word of God himself (not yet in the flesh, not yet named “Jesus”). Either way, the instructions come directly from the Lord: Joshua and his soldiers are to circle the city for six consecutive days. Then on the seventh day they are to circle the city seven times. Seven priests are then to blow their seven horns, followed by a jubilant shout.
In light of that story, the seventeenth-century theologian Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet interpreted Zechariah’s choice of words: “The word horn is one of magnificence and terror that in Scripture signified at once glory and an incomparable power for defeating our enemies.”
But who are these enemies from which we need to be delivered? Bossuet reminds us, “They are, in the first place, the invisible enemies who hold us captive by our sins.”
The apostle Paul says the same: “Our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens” (Ephesians 6:12).
What important reminders for us today! If we spend mere minutes on social media, we will encounter animosity and enmity – one group of humans pitted against another group of humans, their accusations dripping with contempt. The devil is a master strategist, and “divide and conquer” is one of his choice strategies!
But – you might object – some human beings are perpetrating atrocities against other human beings, or threatening to force us to change our beliefs, or else. Doesn’t that make them “enemies”?
Yes and no. Human beings are only ever “enemies” in a secondary sense. They are, first and foremost, created in God’s image and likeness. He wills their and our salvation (1 Timothy 2:4). Jesus commands us, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). Paul gets even more specific: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head. Overcome evil by doing good” (Romans 12:19-20).
This is not a command to become objects for others to use or oppress. Rather, it is a command to be on fire with the love of Jesus and to trust God the Father. Jesus was never a powerless victim to others’ manipulations and schemes; yet he truly loved his enemies. Bossuet suggests that this manner of heaping coals upon their head is “to warm up and melt their icy and hardened hearts.” Not all with hardened hearts will welcome this melting. God desires that all be saved, but fully honors our freedom.
Jesus came among us as a true savior from our real enemies. He allowed God’s own breath, the Holy Spirit, to blow through him according to the Father’s will. He knocked down the wall of hostility that had divided us, opening up true reconciliation with the Father and with each other (Ephesians 2:14-16).
For us on earth, the battle is still playing itself out. We are still in the middle of the story. It is so normal for us to feel terrified. It is so tempting for us to look for scapegoats – to depict one human or group of humans as “the enemy.” We need not let the evil spirits play upon our fear and our shame. We need not allow them to seduce us into hatred, division, or contempt. We need not succumb to the lie that secular human efforts will save and deliver us.
Imagine how hard it must have been for Joshua and his soldiers to surrender with trust to God and his promises! Were they really to believe that seven priests blowing on their horns would win the battle, rather than military might or human cunning? But at God’s command, so it happened.
And what a powerful reminder that God does not belong to any sides in our human factions! For him, there is never an “us versus them.” He is fully in charge, and all human beings are called to be restored as his beloved children.
Rather than seeing other human beings as enemies to be fought, rather than looking to secular means of deliverance, will we trust the living God? Will we give our fears over to him, and seek the deliverance that only Jesus can bring?
Diocesan museum of Genoa, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons