As a child, I often wondered why Zechariah, father of John the Baptist and husband to Elizabeth – Mary’s cousin – was “unable to speak” and became “mute” after his encounter with Angel Gabriel (Luke 1:20). Correspondingly, I found it even more interesting to compare the aftermath of his response to Angel Gabriel with that of Mary. Therefore, in this Advent season, I found it timely and poignant to properly articulate my thoughts juxtapose these two pivotal characters of the Advent Narrative. Why did Mary’s brother-in-law, receive such a harsh treatment from Angel Gabriel and what made his response any different from Mary’s? What lessons can we then learn from both their responses?
To begin, what we know about Zechariah remains very sparse. We see in Luke 1 that Zechariah was a priest and both he and Elizabeth “were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly.” (Luke 1:6) Clearly, then, Zechariah and Elizabeth were, for all intents and purposes, holy, devout and God-fearing people. A few lines later, we read that Angel Gabriel visited Zechariah. Zechariah was “terrified” (Luke 1:12) and overwhelmed with fear – after all, it is not commonplace to have an angel drop by and pay one a visit right?
Angel Gabriel then goes on to narrate a beautiful prophesy of John the Baptist, Zechariah’s unborn son. However, we see that Zechariah’s immediate response to Angel Gabriel was “how can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” The emphasis here – for me, at least – is found in the first half of Zechariah’s response i.e. “how can I be sure of this”. Indeed, how was he possibly able to make sense of the peculiar situation? How was Zechariah possibly able to take Angel Gabriel’s words seriously, without evidence?
Indeed, how can we be sure of things concerning our Faith? Don’t we all crave certainty, assurance and confirmation? Don’t we all desire a tangible sign to allay our fears of the unknown? Yet, does this very desire of security, this possible obsession of certainty, reflect a lack of faith? Does the need to know – and hence, to control – indicate doubtfulness? Would the very presence of an angel not be enough to eradicate such doubts? After all, Angel Gabriel did mention that he was sent by God to “tell [Zechariah] this good news” (Luke 1:19). Why, then, did Zechariah doubt and was therefore “unable to speak, until the day these things occur[ed]” (Luke 1:20)?
Let us now compare Zechariah’s response to that of Mary. Extensive literature has been dedicated to Mary’s reaction to Angel Gabriel – her fiat – and I will therefore not be doing an in-depth exegesis of it. However, what I intend to expound upon is Mary’s immediate response to Angel Gabriel. In Luke 1:34, we see Mary asking the angel, “how can this be, since I am a virgin?” Notice that there is an element of wonder – possibly even astonishment and awe – in Mary’s response. Unlike Zechariah who seemed to have wanted proof – who wanted to be “sure” of things – we see Mary’s bewilderment. Yet Mary’s state of confusion also quickly gives way to childlike faith when she says “here am I, the servant of the lord; let it be with me according to your word” after hearing Angel Gabriel’s prophesy of Jesus (Luke 1:38). We further witness Mary’s conviction when we hear her Song of Praise in Luke 1:46-55 where her “soul magnifies the Lord,” and her spirit “rejoices in God my Saviour”.
Between Mary and Zechariah, then, we see glaring contrasts: the dichotomies of doubt and faith, of control and surrender, of silence and proclamation. Zechariah’s need for certainty is juxtaposed against Mary’s generous act of allowing God to fulfil His will through her life. Zechariah’s muteness is contrasted against Mary’s Song of Praise.
So why was Zechariah struck dumb after doubting Angel Gabriel’s message? Was it possible that keeping quiet was the best form of spiritual purification that Zechariah needed to undergo to become a better (and possibly less doubtful priest)? Could it be that silence was a necessary condition that Zechariah needed to experience in order to ponder and reflect upon Angel Gabriel’s powerful message? Was the inability to talk, then, a means for Zechariah to achieve a greater end? Yet what could this end-goal be?
Perhaps a clue resides in Luke 1:62-64 where he “asked for a writing tablet” and wrote, “His name is John”, reiterating Elizabeth’s wishes as well. Zechariah had to write on a tablet simply because he could not speak. However, I believe that Zechariah’s simple act of writing reflect something far more profound: actions speak louder than words; faith is love made visible and tangible. By naming his son John and in turn, fulfilling Angel Gabriel’s prophesy and surrendering John to the great unknown i.e. the will of God, Zechariah regains control of his speech – “immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God” (Luke 1:64). By letting go of his need to control and to know, Zechariah received a tangible sign of faith – one that “amazed” his “neighbours”, one that made him an even better priest.
Henri Nouwen, a Dutch Catholic priest (and one of my all-time favourite authors) once shared that “somewhere we know that without silence, words lose their meaning”. Indeed, in this Advent season – a time often inundated with noise, hustle and bustle – may we also intentionally carve out time of silence. And may this time of quiet help us listen courageously and respond generously to God. May we learn from both Zechariah and Mary and grow to have (more) faith and allow our faiths to be made visible – testaments of God’s grace and love – in this Advent season.
© 2017 Christ Centered Conversations/Christopher Chok