Christmas Stories: The Silencing

Scripture: Luke 1:5-25

Before there was Jesus – at least as far as the world was concerned – there was John the Baptist.  John was the Forerunner, the one who would call people to prepare the way of the Lord.  A wild-eyed prophet on the margins of society, he ate locusts and wore camel hair and told the people who flocked to the banks of the Jordan River for baptism to repent.  But that was all later.  Before there was Jesus, there was John, and the story of his own miraculous birth to his parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah.

On the day that Zechariah came to call The Silencing, he thought he had been cursed.

It would be a lie to say the day started off like any other, because it wasn’t every day that his section of priests was called up to Temple duty.  Still, that happened twice a year, and the long walk into Jerusalem that morning was old and familiar, as was the commotion outside the Temple, and the sweet smell of incense mixed with blood from the previous day’s offerings.  Zechariah knew the routine.  Each morning, lots would be drawn, and whichever priest was chosen would enter the sanctuary – not the very inner sanctuary, the Holy of Holies, which only the High Priest could enter once a year, but the outer inner sanctuary – to light the incense offering.  Zechariah had been serving as a priest for many years, but he had never been chosen to light the incense offering.  In fact, he had kind of given up hope that he ever would.  Zechariah had given up hope about a lot of things, to be honest.  He could hardly believe it when his lot was drawn.

But it was drawn, and so that morning Zechariah found himself stepping – hesitantly, reverently – into the sanctuary of the Lord.  And for a moment, he felt a strange feeling that he hardly remembered anymore, as much as he prayed every day, as much as he could recite the Psalms by heart.  It felt something like hope.

He was just about to light the first stick of incense when he saw him.

The person – could he call him that? – the figure, the creature, standing on the right side of the altar, didn’t move at first.  Afterward, all Zechariah could remember was that he glowed.  And that he spoke with the most booming voice Zechariah had ever heard, like thunder.  Zechariah cried out, and jumped back, and cowered, though in retrospect, he could have told you as well as anyone that when an angel of the Lord appeared, you were not supposed to be afraid.

“Don’t be afraid, Zechariah,” the creature told him.  “I have good news for you, news you’ve prayed for for a long time.”

Zechariah’s first instinct was to laugh, though luckily he didn’t do so out loud.  It was true that he and Elizabeth had prayed for a child, almost from the time they were married.  In their world, though later generations would argue the point, children were a sign of God’s blessing, and if you didn’t have them, well, that said something too.  Barren.  He’d heard that word whispered about Elizabeth, and it always stung.  Barren, such a cold and empty word.  He supposed over time his prayers had become somewhat barren too.  He said the words, but it was hard to believe deep down that anyone was really listening.  In time, he had made peace with it all, he thought.

So Zechariah didn’t laugh, but he did shake his head at the pure cognitive dissonance of standing there, in the sanctuary, incense stick in hand, being told by this glowing creature that now, now, his prayers had been answered. “How can this be?” he said, mostly wondering aloud.

That was when The Silencing began – this time in his life that made Zechariah think he had been cursed.  “Because you didn’t believe me,” the creature said, “you won’t be able to talk until your son John is born.”

Zechariah opened his mouth to protest, but no sound came out.  And just like that, Gabriel was gone and Zechariah found himself alone in the sanctuary once more.

“That’s not fair!” he tried to cry out into the empty sanctuary, momentarily overlooking the actual good news the angel had delivered.  “I wasn’t doubting you!” he mouthed, at the space where Gabriel had stood.  “I was just wondering about the logistics!”  Nothing.

Zechariah slumped down by the altar and buried his head in his hands.  Leave it to him to get the best news of his life, and ruin everything, all at the same time.  He, who had always been faithful, he, who had kept saying his prayers even when they seemed to go into an empty void, he, who was known as righteous and blameless before God, was being punished for his lack of faith.

After a while he realized that those gathered outside were waiting for him, and probably wondering what was taking so long.  So Zechariah sighed, got up, and walked back out of the Temple into the courtyard, into a sea of people who looked at him expectantly, waiting for him to offer the benediction.

He made one last valiant effort: “The Lord bless you and keep you!”  No sound came out.  The crowd continued to look at him expectantly.  “The Lord make his face to shine upon you!” he tried.  Nothing.  People started to whisper.  Zechariah threw up his hands and gestured wildly.  Finally, someone in the crowd cried out, “He can’t talk!  He’s seen a vision in the sanctuary!” and the whole crowd began to roar.

When it was time to leave Jerusalem, Zechariah walked home alone in silence.  He had never minded those long and quiet walks before.  But this time silence felt like prison.  Now, more than ever, he had so much to say.  He still had questions, questions the angel hadn’t given him the chance to ask.  He had people wanting to know what had happened in the sanctuary, what he had seen, if they should be worried.  He wanted to tell God he was sorry for doubting, not just then in the Temple, but all these years.  After a while, he even remembered that this was good news, and wanted to praise God, but he couldn’t even do that.  He couldn’t even fall back on his old, familiar prayers, though he said them to himself as his old feet plodded their way back home.  Most of all, he wondered – what was he going to tell Elizabeth?

Nothing.  That’s what he was going to tell her.

He felt a pang of guilt about Elizabeth, who was oblivious to all of it.  He wouldn’t be able to prepare her for what was about to happen.  There would be no planning together, no discussing their hopes and dreams and fears for the future, no talking late into the night about the bigger thing that God was apparently about to do in the world.  And then Zechariah envied Elizabeth, because she would be able to talk about all these things, just not with him.

When Zechariah arrived home, Elizabeth was confused at first, then frustrated, then amused.  And, in a matter of weeks, Elizabeth discovered for herself the news that Zechariah hadn’t been able to tell her.  Zechariah waited, from behind his wall of silence, to see what her reaction would be.

And then a strange thing happened.

Because when Elizabeth found out, the first thing she did was close the doors and sit – in silence.

Months went by and Zechariah watched his wife, amazed.  There had, as far as he knew, been no glowing creature that stole Elizabeth’s voice; she hadn’t doubted and been punished for her disbelief.  Yet now, at this time, when there was so much to say, so many questions to ask, so many people wanting answers, Elizabeth chose silence.  It was as if, Zechariah thought, it was the only fitting response – not just to their own answered prayers, but to what God was getting ready to do.

Five months later, when Mary came to stay, Elizabeth broke her silence and sang the praises of another miraculous child.  Zechariah’s sentence, on the other end, wasn’t over.  But surprisingly, he found that he minded less now.  He found himself thinking of all the words he had said before: beautiful prayers, advice offered to friends, theological ponderings, hastily made promises, arguments, the occasional soapbox – and somehow, now, none of them seemed as important as they once had.  He began to think that maybe, in the end, there wasn’t so much to say that couldn’t wait.  That maybe the world didn’t hang on his words as much as he had once thought.  That he even prayed better when he didn’t always feel the pressure to articulate things too precisely.  That he could sit with the mystery of it all a little more.

When John was born, the curse of The Silencing was lifted, and Zechariah sang: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably upon his people and redeemed them!”

But by that time, Zechariah could look back and see that The Silencing had been a gift.[1]

[1] With inspiration from Silence and Other Surprising Invitations of Advent by Enuma Okoro


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