From Silence and Other Surprising Invitations of Advent
Part One: Surprised and Silenced by God
Traditionally when we think of Advent we immediately call to mind Mary, Joseph, and the angel Gabriel. But in the Gospel of Luke, Zechariah and Elizabeth are the first two people we meet in the Advent narrative. Much as John the Baptist was the forerunner to Christ, his parents Zechariah and Elizabeth seem to be the forerunners for the holy family. The angel Gabriel comes to them first to astound them with good news. Yet, Zechariah and Elizabeth teach us that receiving divine good news can be fraught with all kinds of tensions and questions. It is an understatement to say that Zachariah and Elizabeth are caught by surprise. Their shock dumbs them into silence and seclusion, affording them time to dwell with the news. The story of how Zechariah and Elizabeth come to bear their son, John, only takes up one chapter of Luke’s gospel, but it is replete with enough life and faith lessons to sustain us for weeks.
It is easy to imagine Zechariah and Elizabeth as the elderly couple we might adopt as unofficial grandparents. They were good God-fearing people recognized by their community as devout and faithful, and, according to scripture, they lived blameless lives. “Both of them were righteous before God,” (Luke 1:6). Zechariah belonged to a priestly order, and Elizabeth was a descendant of Aaron, Moses’s right-hand man. An endearing couple who seemed to have lived quiet, obedient lives and whom we would hope had experienced great joy and satisfaction. But from the very beginning of the Advent story we are reminded that life is often unfair, and even devout, obedient people harbor the tension of unanswered prayers and bear the weight of unmet desires. “But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years,” (Luke 1:7). To be a barren woman in that society meant enduring personal disgrace, and we can imagine that Elizabeth and Zechariah were tempted to imagine themselves cured by God or somehow outside God’s favor. How might Zechariah have felt because Elizabeth could not have children? How did this affect their marriage? Many questions remain unanswered by the Biblical text, but we might find countless ways to immerse ourselves in the story. Whom of us has not struggled with unanswered prayer, lived with the longing of unmet desire, feared how our community would judge us based on circumstances beyond our control, or based our self-worth on the oftentimes compassionless standards of society?
And yet for Elizabeth and Zechariah, beyond the shame also lay the face that children secured a family’s future in countless ways: to continue the bloodline, to care for aging parents, and to extend the long promised Abrahamic blessing to the world. Who would take up Zechariah’s priestly duties? Having a child was steeped in significance for an Israelite couple. The Advent story we associate with the joy of Christmas actually begins with deep sorrow and longing. But thankfully, in the Kingdom of God there is always more to the story than meets the eye.
There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judaea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abia: and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elisabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. And they had no child, because that Elisabeth was barren, and they both were now well stricken in years. And it came to pass, that while he executed the priest’s office before God in the order of his course, According to the custom of the priest’s office, his lot was to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord. And the whole multitude of the people were praying without at the time of incense. And there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. (Luke 1:5-11)
As we begin to reflect on the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, the first questions we might ask are, “How can Elizabeth be barren if she and Zechariah were such faithful Jews?” and, “Doesn’t God reward faithfulness?” There is no easy answer to these questions. And there are countless ways in which we could respond to the seeming unfairness of Zechariah and Elizabeth’s situation. Many of us could probably name someone (if not ourselves) in a similar situation of having led an earnest life of faithfulness and yet living in the reality of unanswered prayers. Perhaps we are waiting patiently to meet a fitting life partner or to have that long-desired first child. Perhaps we are waiting for vocational clarity that would allow us to use our God-given gifts and passions. Perhaps we are waiting for enough financial resources to go back to school or to meet pressing needs of our family. It would be normal and expected for feelings of anger, frustration, defeat, and resignation to creep into our spirits. Such feelings are not wrong and can faithfully be acknowledged.
We are told that Zechariah prayed for Elizabeth to conceive. What the text does not share is the intensity and range of emotion that must have accompanied those times of prayer. It would be understandable if, in his disappointment, Zechariah experienced a crisis of faith, but this is not his reaction. Zechariah was of the priestly order and had commitments to his community. He was bound to God in ways that were amplified by his years of faithful service and devotion. Instead of describing a faith crisis, the text informs us that Zechariah continues his priestly duties. He attends to his faith while bearing the reality of his unanswered prayers and God’s seeming silence. In the midst of doing what is required of him in good faith, Zechariah opens himself to encounter the holy. And God shows up.
During Advent we have permission to sit with Zechariah and Elizabeth for a while before jumping too quickly into angel Gabriel’s visit. Zechariah and Elizabeth know something about longing and waiting. They must also know something about the difficulty of maintaining faith and hope. And yet, scripture only speaks of their righteousness before God. We are left wondering what it looked like for Zechariah and Elizabeth to express their yearnings, their desires, and their grief before God. We know from the witness of the psalms that acknowledging one’s desires and one’s sorrows before God was part of how Israel communicated with God. So if Zechariah and Elizabeth were devout then surely their faithfulness included prayers that open their hearts to God in sincerity and vulnerability.
God, teach us to be patient during times that make us uncomfortable. Help us open our lives to you in honesty and vulnerability. Amen.