Yesterday we read, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him (Jn 3:17). Today we read in our Daily Office, “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away the judgements against you (Zeph 3:14-15a).” We are holding our breath. We dare not move, but like an athlete tense on the block, waiting for the moment to explode into energy, we hold our breath. Tomorrow night is the eve of the Christ Mass. He is coming to us as a little child. We will sing and rejoice as did the shepherds. And the angels. And all the heaven and earth. But not quite yet. Labor pains, and the contractions are minutes apart. But not quite yet.
First we have a story. A story that will tell of joy, and punishment, and remind us of the messenger who called us to repentance as we waited for Emmanuel, God With Us (Lk 1:1-25).
Zechariah was a priest in the Temple, His wife, Elizabeth, was descended from Aaron, the first priest of the Law. They lived righteous lives. But she was barren. At least that was what was then assumed, that is was her deficiency. But no matter. They were childless. And getting on in years. What did that mean? Was she only 40, he perhaps 50? It was a time when long life was a gift. We usually picture them as much older. One day when Zechariah was on the rota to serve in the inner court at the altar of incense, and he was alone, the people praying outside, an angel appeared to him and terrified him. “Do not be afraid.” A statement which is meant to calm, but also a statement that God is present in this angelic messenger, and that is terrifying. And the angel told him many things, this angel who was Gabriel who stands in the presence of God. Zechariah and his wife would have a child, a son who would be filled with the Holy Spirit, and who would be a great prophet like Elijah, and be the one who would precede the coming of the Messiah. And this child shall be named John, and be raised as an ascetic who never touches wine or strong drink. The instructions and prophecy went on and on. And by now I expect Zechariah was beyond afraid. He was overwhelmed, stunned, confused. That was a lot to take in under normal circumstances, but being isolated in a room filled with incense smoke in the presence of the Angel Gabriel was more than he could deal with. Did he push back? Was he grasping for words? Or was being proud before God, a learned and righteous priest. You don’t question God. But we do. The prophets did. Even Mary will in tomorrow’s reading of the Annunciation. But when Zechariah blurted out, “How can this be? (How do I know this for certain, in one translation.) We are old?” he was punished pretty severely. He was struck dumb. While we are told that when he emerged from his duty now unable to utter a word the people knew he had seen a vision. This is kind, but in that world, and we know this from Jesus’ healing of the dumb and other disabled, such conditions were treated with some suspicion. And when he went home, how did Elizabeth regard him? Yet they did what couples do and made a baby. And she was confined for five months. Was it a difficult pregnancy? Was she still ashamed that she had been unable to do what society demanded of women, to carry on the family line through childbirth? And here she was, old, going to market, drawing water, and with her swelling belly mocking the social norms. We don’t know, and never will. But this couple, related to a family in Nazareth, were needed to fulfil the prophecies about the coming of the Messiah.
Being chosen by God isn’t always easy. And with or without hesitation, it can cause severe pain as we are pruned, refined by fire, purified, disciplined. And if we resist, we are corrected, even punished. This is a word we don’t like much anymore. It brings back images of beaten children and adults using power, even if they believe it is righteous power, over the powerless. And it also gives permission for those in power to grow in pride and entitlement until they, themselves, are the greater sinners. So this exchange between Zechariah and Gabriel leaves us feeling uncomfortable. Was such a time of silence needed for a moment of doubt, or even for asking for more clarification?
The difference between Zechariah’s question and Mary’s seems to be his use of the word γνώσομαι (gnōsomai) or how will I know, find out, gain the knowledge of, in Zechariah’s answer and Mary’s γινώσκω (ginōskō), to know intimately, in Mary’s case to know a man sexually, but in the Gospel of John the way Jesus says he knows his Father. Mary’s shock, even fear, bravely accepts this gift. The Spirit of God will overshadow her, cover her. As a cloud covered Peter and companions on Mount Tabor during the Transfiguration. A play on words which is lost in translation? Zechariah’s address to Gabriel is sharper, more demanding, turning the issue into a question of knowledge, gnosis, against Mary’s grasping to comprehend what she had never experienced. And Gabriel sees right through him. Perhaps Zechariah was protecting himself by covering himself with his rank as priest. He was a priest of Abijah, one of fifty-two orders of priests who served one week a year. During his service he was required to whisper the sacred name of God at the altar. But his order also chose unblemished lambs for sacrifice. And Zechariah’s son-to-be would also select an unblemished lamb in his cousin. John would be Elijah to Jesus’ Messiah. And for Zechariah’s transgression with the Angel Gabriel he was disciplined, made mute, unable to speak the name of God. What was it like for him? Anger? Prayer? Confusion? Shame? Finally understanding and growing in the Spirit?
What of us? We, too, are asked, like Mary, to birth the Incarnate God in our lives as we live in the world as Christ’s own forever. But we, too, often fall back on our rank, our privilege as good Christians. It is too easy to slip into those who cry “Lord, Lord,” but without vulnerability, without humility. Zechariah was blessed to be called to task. He had the time in silence, in communion with God to change, grow. The proof of that is his glorious song of praise, the Benedictus, poetic, prophetic, and powerful. The coming of Jesus the Christ was a human story, filled with people who, however righteous, were still human and stumbled their way to do what was required. For them, salvation history didn’t come with a script.
The Feast of the Incarnation is mere hours away for us, for this year. But Christ is born to us every year. And now I will tell you a mystery. Christ is reborn in each of us every day, every minute of our lives. Contemplate that as you wait. Blessed Advent. And don’t forget to breathe. Soon. Soon.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is currently at the Church of the Good Shepherd, Episcopal, Berkeley, California. She earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.