As we draw closer to Christmas, our Byzantine brothers and sisters celebrate two Sundays in honor of Christ’s forebears. Let’s give some consideration today to one of them, the nearly forgotten Zechariah.
Advent is a season concerned with developing particular attitudes more than prescribing certain actions. One difficulty of modern man is not that he does wrong things (although he does) as much as that he thinks wrong thoughts. Correct thinking leads to correct behavior. In theological language: Orthodoxy brings about orthopraxis. Attitudes, however, are not disembodied realities; they are incarnate in concrete, historical persons. Therefore, it’s helpful to reflect on this relatively unsung hero, who played a key role in the first Advent and who can assist us in experiencing a holy Advent and Christmas in our own day.
Zechariah was a priest and, like the priests of the Old Dispensation, he was married. We are told by St. Luke that he and his wife Elizabeth “were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.” Only one source of pain and tension existed in their lives: They were childless. Among God’s people, childlessness was regarded as a curse from God and a disgrace before the human family. (How different from so many in our society who avoid children, even resorting to artificial contraception and abortion.) The Lord’s faithful people in every age, however, yearn for the new life that is a sign of God’s love.
We meet Zechariah for the first time, appropriately enough, in the Temple, fulfilling his priestly role. Among the ancient Jews, when a priest was on duty, he was required to live apart from his wife since even the people of the Old Law sensed a connection between priestly activity and celibacy. In the New Covenant, of course, Jesus takes a step farther and turns celibacy into a preferential option for the Kingdom. It’s a permanent way of life because priesthood is a permanent mode of existence, not limited to “tours of duty.” The high priesthood of Christ is eternal and not transitory.
At any rate, Zechariah has approached the altar of God at the incense hour and is stunned to encounter an angel. A priest who spends his entire life attempting to put others in touch with Almighty God is amazed when God communicates with him. Zechariah’s difficulty is twofold: Fear and lack of trust in the Lord.
His fear is rooted in a situation common to most people, whereby we pray for years on end for something, never really expecting to obtain the favor, and then become terrified when God acts on our behalf. Zechariah’s lack of trust comes from being locked into an earthbound way of viewing reality: “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” (Lk 1:18). In other words, his knowledge is limited by the way things normally occur; he cannot see beyond the natural, empirical level of existence.
Contrary to what most people think, faith does not mean NOT seeing evidence for belief; rather, faith is a particular kind of vision, enabling us to look at the world from a divine perspective. Can an athlete survive on bread and water? Probably. Does he have much of a chance at becoming an Olympic star on that diet? Probably not. Similarly, a person can live without the vision provided by faith, but it’s a meager life. Faith is not something “added to” our natural vision, like a high-powered telescope; it offers vistas unimaginable to those who lack it.
Nor is faith grounded in wishful thinking; it is founded on God’s providential actions throughout salvation history. Therefore, Zechariah the priest should have known better than to doubt. God demonstrates His intolerance for mistrust of Him by striking the old priest dumb. To tell the truth, Zechariah’s faculty of speech is of no use to him, anyway, if he is unwilling to believe and then tell of the marvels the Lord has done.
But Zechariah learns his lesson. When the child of his hopes and dreams is born and everyone wants to name him after his father or some other relative, the mute Zechariah recalls the message of the angel and intervenes by writing on the slate with all deliberateness: “John is his name.” (Lk 1:63) In that instant, his tongue was loosed, so that he not only spoke, but did so in poetry, reminding us that the Lord exceeds our expectations – if we trust Him.
The old priest breaks out into his magnificent hymn of praise, the Benedictus, which the Church has used for centuries in Morning Prayer. It begins with the praise of God for His redemptive work on behalf of the human race and moves on to a realization of how that work would be accomplished in a unique way by Zechariah’s own son. The father addresses his infant son with great charm: “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins.” Why and how? “Through the tender mercy of our God, when the day shall dawn upon us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Faith enables him to see not only the past and the present, but even the future. Because we know how God has acted in the past and what He does for us right now, we can come to intelligent conclusions about what He will do in the days and years ahead. People without faith have nothing to look forward to in life because they are not in touch with the God who is Fidelity Personified.
Hope and the future are what Advent is all about.
*Image: The Angel Appearing to Zacharias by William Blake,1799–1800 [The MET, New York]
You may also enjoy:
Elizabeth A, Mitchell’s The Point of Greatest Fear
Robert Royal’s Trust