Note: This reflection does not have a corresponding audio file. It is included to complete the sequence of DEL readings in the days leading to Christmas Day
In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.
Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense-offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’ Zechariah said to the angel, ‘How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.’ The angel replied, ‘I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.’
Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. When his time of service was ended, he went to his home.
After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, ‘This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favourably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.’
Today we hear of an angelic messenger coming, not to Mary or Joseph, but to Zechariah. As with the foretelling of the birth of Jesus, the birth of John the Baptist is heralded by Gabriel, a messenger who stands in the presence of God. Also as with the birth of Jesus, it was to take place in miraculous circumstances. John the Baptist was not to be born to a virgin but to a woman who was long past child-bearing age. Gabriel’s coming to Zechariah was the beginning of a sequence of events that would change human history, and it this visitation that opens the gospel narrative we are given by Luke.
Within this extract from the first chapter of Luke’s gospel we hear of the reason why Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, were chosen by God. Zechariah himself belonged to the long priestly tradition, and Elizabeth descended from the priestly line of Aaron himself. They are also both described as being righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. Surely, none could be more suitable than this devout, childless couple.
Then comes an interesting detail: Once when he was serving as priest before God. These words are often glossed over as corroborative detail, but we should ponder upon their implication for us. What does Luke mean when he says: Once when he was serving as priest before God? Of course, this refers to the way in which the Jewish priesthood served in the Temple. There was clearly a rota which shared out the privilege of serving in the holiest part of the Temple, and to ensure fairness, and honesty in the awarding of this honour the final stage of selection was left to God: he was chosen by lot.
However, if we take the words Luke gives us literally, there is the implication that Zechariah, like others in his order, donned the persona of priest to perform the rites and ceremonies of their office. Luke’s words give us no sense that the priesthood of Zechariah was something he inhabited every moment of his life, other than he lived a good life alongside his faithful and loving wife. Then comes the moment when Zechariah is confronted with Gabriel and his reaction is to express doubt and uncertainty.
Zechariah was confronted with the incredible and the impossible, and he questioned the integrity of the message he heard. How often are we in the same place? God is constantly breaking through into our lives. Perhaps not as dramatically as we read in the beginning of Luke’s gospel, but still in a very real sense. How often do we inhabit those moments and accept them as being the work of God, and how often do we doubt and question?
Zechariah was rendered mute until Gabriel’s message came to pass. We render ourselves mute every time we doubt and question the wonder of God’s power as he works his miraculous signs in this world. Let us pray that we might truly trust the one who came into our midst to bring forgiveness and redemption for all. Let us pray that rather than being dumb we might proclaim the Good News to all … the Good News of which we can be certain … the Good News that Jesus was born to bring peace, light and love into this world.