December 1, 2022
Read: Luke 1:5-23
I’ve always felt sorry for Zechariah. Poor dude asks an angel a question and gets slapped with the punishment of silence for his lack of faith. The teacher in me cringes that a student cannot ask a clarifying question. The extrovert in me shudders at the sentence of nine months of silence, especially during a time when one would need to speak – after an angelic visitation and during a time of a miraculous pregnancy! Since I’ve always struggled with this passage, I’ve decided to delve into it to understand it some more.
To start, I always felt it was unfair that Mary gets to ask a very similar question after the angel Gabriel explains about future Jesus “How will this be since I am a virgin?” and she gets a clarifying answer, and consequently has the opportunity to respond with her famous fiat (“Let it be done according to your will.”) By contrast, poor Zechariah queries “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years” and instead goes down for eternity as the exemplar of doubt, and is summarily muted for his unbelief. Previous explanations I’ve heard compared Mary’s bewilderment “how can this be?” with Zechariah’s apparent need for certainty, or facts, “to be sure.”
As a university prof, that doesn’t sit well with me. I honestly can’t believe that God just wants us to act on blind faith, discounting any elements of certainty, science or evidence, and would prefer us all to be naively and blindly obedient. I mean, the world cannot be full of young innocent, bewildered Marys. Or of Simeons – elders who are so holy that they would be happy to die once they have merely glimpsed the Messiah. What of the ordinary, slightly jaded, questioning and close to middle-aged folk like me – is there no place for them in God’s plan?
The Holy Spirit led me to a more satisfactory answer when I reflected on Zechariah in relation to Simeon instead of Mary. Simeon, described as just and devout, is searching for the miraculous: “looking for the consolation of Israel.” Like Mary and Zechariah, he also had an encounter with the miraculous: the Holy Spirit informed him he’d behold the Messiah. And, as it turns out, he actually ends up literally holding God incarnate in his arms!
Like Simeon, Zechariah was older, and deeply devout and religious. In fact, he was a highly-ranked Levite priest –whose lineage traces back to Aaron and thus to all the miracles that he and his brother Moses witnessed and performed during the Exodus. In fact, Zechariah’s visitation by Gabriel occurs during a very special occasion – when he was given the special privilege of entering the Temple and placing incense on the altar. It was believed that God himself resided there, behind curtain of the Holy of Holies. It was a rare and very blessed occasion for a priest to be given this honour; commentaries explain it would be a once in a lifetime opportunity given to only a handful of Levite priests. Zechariah would have traveled to Jerusalem from his town in the boonies to perform this sacred ritual, and would have looked forward to this, and trained for this, for his whole career. So, if there were one occasion in his life where and when Zechariah should be expecting the miraculous, it should be on this special occasion. However, he‘s terrified when he sees Gabriel in the inner temple, and perplexed when the angel shares good news with him: that he will bear a son who will bring him joy and delight, carry on his lineage, but also be an important forerunner to the Messiah.
So, I would argue that Zechariah’s failure here is not so much his doubt, but rather, his failure to be awaiting, expecting and searching for the miraculous. Unlike Mary, a young peasant girl with little religious training, Zechariah should know better – after all, he is well-versed in the Torah and the knowledge of God’s miraculous power. Like Simeon, or even more so, as a priest, Zechariah should be looking out for the miraculous: he should be awaiting the Messiah and he should be aware of God’s miraculous intervention in the lives of the faithful. And especially, on this very special one in a lifetime occasion, he should have been seeking, or at least secretly hoping, to encounter God’s supernatural presence in this sacred, holy place.
When viewed in this light, this passage prompted me to reflect: what role does the miraculous play in my life? I am pretty good at being grateful, counting my blessings or seeing the goodness of God. But miracles? Am I joyfully expecting God’s miracles? Do I really believe God supernaturally intervenes in the world? Or have I really become so jaded by bad news or ground down by daily routines, that there is no place for miracles in my life? That my Christian imagination has been whittled down to rules and rituals? I’ve been a Christian a long time, and am pretty versed in the various miracles in the Bible – yet, what real, tangible role do they play in my life? Or are they just nice children’s stories? When I go to church, I’m fortunate to have direct access to God, unlike in Judaic times… Yet do I really expect to meet God in a miraculous way when I go to Church? Or am I just expecting an encouraging pep talk from the pulpit? Or how do I respond to the miracles in other’s lives? Or my life? Have they really changed my life? And believe me, on that score, I can count dozens of miracles in my life!! You’ve met two of my miracles – they run and toddle around at Calvary on Sundays… But how would it change my children’s lives if suddenly we were all looking for and expecting the miraculous in our daily lives?
After further reflection, I realized that God is not punishing Zechariah for his doubt or training him as an extrovert to be more of an introvert by silencing him. (Yes, I may be projecting here a bit with the extraversion– but Zechariah just can’t help but blurt out whatever is on his mind in the Holy of Holies! ...) On the contrary, Gabriel is offering Zechariah a gift. A chance at radical transformation. A chance for a deep relationship with the miraculous. I am arrested by the fact that Gabriel introduces himself to Zechariah by name. I checked, and no where else in the Protestant Bible does an Angel introduce himself by name. (In the Catholic Bible, Raphael also names himself in the book of Tobit). And why would someone introduce themselves, other than to start a relationship? OK, maybe I am way off base here, but I like to imagine that during those nine months of silence, Zechariah came to understand Gabriel a bit better, perhaps more personally.
Certainly, during those nine months he embodied the miraculous with his angelic muteness. Rather than being a disability or a punishment, Zechariah’s muteness thus offered him an opportunity at embodiment closer to Mary’s or Elizabeth’s – who were pregnant and so quite literally embodying a different life. Having had the privilege of being pregnant, I know how quickly I learned through that nine-month embodiment that my body was not my own, or that my children were completely different persons from me – awake at 3 am, craving chicken shawarma or enjoying kicking my ribs. Maybe Zechariah’s muteness not only helped communication in his marriage (I hear that many marital disputes are about “tone”), but it also helped him come to terms that John would be his own person. Maybe his kid would wear strange clothes like camel hair or eat strange food, like locusts!… As we know, John would not follow in his father’s footsteps and be a Levite priest, yet he would nonetheless be exceptionally strong in his faith. All thanks to, I should think, his father’s transformation to the miraculous.
Anyways, reframing Zechariah’s silence as embodiment, rather than disability or punishment, leads me to think about how I might similarly process Advent in a more embodied, miracle-oriented way… The Holy Spirit is certainly nudging me to turn away from the fake, virtual world of the Internet and social media, and to lean more into the contemplative tradition of silence, solitude, abiding and adoration… I’m also considering giving up certain rites and rituals that don’t bring the miraculous closer to me, and rather spend more time with my kids, maybe making things. And although muteness is impossible for me given my job and children, I do feel called to silence words of criticism, complaint, or reprimand with my kids, and just focus on praise and positivity. And what about you? What practices might you choose to embody to grow into deeper relationship with the miraculous?
Written By Madelaine Hron