by Br Julian McDonald cfc
Now, on the eighth day when they came to circumcise the child, they were going to call him Zechariah after his father…His father asked for a writing tablet and wrote: “His name is John.” And they were all astonished. Luke 1, 57-66, 80
In order to get a clear understanding of today’s gospel reading, I suggest that we need to look at the early part of the story describing how Zechariah lost his speech. When the angel Gabriel suddenly appeared, Zechariah was preparing to offer incense in front of a large gathering in the temple. At the conclusion of the offering, he was scheduled to bless the crowd. Remember, Zechariah was an elderly priest and this was to be his big moment. He had been chosen by lot to lead the evening prayer, to go into the sanctuary, the holiest part of the temple where God dwelt. So, this was a moment he hoped would come before he died. First of all, he is delayed by the angel, and then left speechless. His big moment comes to almost nothing.
As I was reflecting on Zechariah’s disappointment, my imagination was triggered and I found myself thinking of a long-winded parish priest of my youth who gave never-ending sermons. I’m sure I, and many others sitting in the pews, would have cheered had that man been struck speechless on his way up to the pulpit.
Well, the worshippers in the temple saw Zechariah go into the sanctuary, and, when he was delayed in coming out, they may well have been wondering if he had had a fall or a stroke or a heart-attack. And when he eventually reappeared, speechless, he had no way of explaining that he’d had an encounter with an angel, even if he knew it was an angel. So the congregation was as bewildered as the priest.
One would have to be heartless not to feel for Zechariah. To begin with, he was an elderly man who had no experience of visits from angels. Naturally he is “disturbed…and overcome with fear” (Luke 1, 12). Then he is told that there’s no need to be afraid, because his prayers for a son have been answered. But Gabriel gives him no chance to respond and speaks to Zechariah at length: “Your wife Elizabeth is to bear you a son and you shall name him John. He will be your joy and delight and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord; he must drink no wine, no strong drink; even from his mother’s womb he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, and he will bring back many of the Israelites to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah, he will go before him to reconcile fathers to their children and the disobedient to the good sense of the upright, preparing for the Lord a people fit for him.” Clearly, Zechariah can’t take all that in. It’s a program for a life-time. But he’s completely bowled over by the news that his wife Elizabeth, whom he delicately describes as “getting on in years”, is pregnant.
Stunned by that news, Zechariah goes into shock and, instead of saying to the angel “You’ve got to be joking”, he asks what any normal elderly man would: “How can I know this?” After all, it does beggar belief! Of course, there’s a humorous side to all this: God sends an angel to tell a senior, religious leader that he will be silenced, that he is to stop talking. Could you imagine that happening in our day and age?
In this context, I’m reminded of the story in Genesis of how Sarah laughed to herself when she overheard one of Abraham’s three guests telling him that his wife would become pregnant within twelve months: “So Sarah laughed to herself, thinking, ‘Now that I am past the age of childbearing, and my husband is an old man, is pleasure to come my way again?’” (Genesis 18, 12)
In our Church in which there is much pontificating by men about human sexuality, conception and pregnancy, it is important to remind ourselves that unexpected pregnancies are not always times of much rejoicing. I know of a mother of two girls in their late teens and of a boy now 18 months old who said to her parish priest after he had described Sarah as overjoyed at the news of her pregnancy: “Father, I hope you realise that pregnancy is not always happy. Yes, we love our little boy dearly, but at the time, it was no laughing matter.”
On the surface, it seems to me that Zechariah received unfair treatment from the angel Gabriel. After all, it was almost unheard of that any first-born son would be given any other name but his father’s. For Zechariah to be told by a complete stranger that he was to call the son he didn’t think he would ever have by a name that was not in the family was beyond belief. To question that was surely a natural response. For his trouble, Zechariah is struck dumb. And remember, it is Luke who tells us that Zechariah was visited by the angel Gabriel. That information is not volunteered by Zechariah himself. How was he to know that the messenger he encountered was a genuine messenger from God? Luke would have gotten that story through oral tradition passed on from one generation to the next. In hindsight people came to explain that what took place that afternoon in the sanctuary of the temple was a heavenly visitation.
What’s the point of all this as far as we are concerned? Perhaps Zechariah’s “sin” was not one of doubt or disbelief but one of inflexibility. Maybe he had become so set in his ways that he could not even imagine that God is a God of surprises. Ironically, he may well have been more barren than his wife Elizabeth because he could not even think of a bright and hope-filled future. So, this gospel reading invites me to ask myself if I am creative enough to imagine that the world of which I am part could be different. And in what specific ways might it be different? Moreover am I prepared to make the effort to ensure that my part of it is different? Or do I end up allowing myself to be sedated into accepting that my world will always be the one that is described to me every day in the morning papers and the TV news?
Maybe we, too, have settled into suspended animation, and, tired of waiting for change to happen by magic, we can’t cope with surprises. Consequently, we end up asking the same question as Zechariah did: “How will I know that this is so?” In his book, Expecting God’s Surprises, Robert Dunham writes: “Maybe it’s time for us to claim the angel’s gift of silence again – to stop talking so much, to stop trying to explain, to shut our mouths before the mystery of God and see what the quiet has to teach us. Kathleen Norris adds a thought about Zechariah that also speaks to our impatience and to our tendency to always want explanations: ‘I read Zechariah’s punishment as a grace, in that he could not say anything to further compound his initial arrogance when confronted with mystery. When he does speak again it is to praise God: he’s had nine months to think it over.’” (Robert Dunham, Expecting God’s Surprises: Devotions for the Advent Journey, Geneva Press, 2001) That’s something for us all to ponder. Was Zechariah inflexible and arrogant? Are you and I like that?