4th Week of Advent (M)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, New Orleans
The elderly priest, Zechariah, is inside the temple burning incense on the altar. While going about his priestly duties, he is visited by Gabriel, the archangel. If this heavenly visitation were not surprising enough, he is also told that he and his barren wife, Elizabeth, will soon have a child and this child will grow up to be the herald of the Messiah, a second Elijiah who will “prepare a people fit for the Lord." Hearing this news, Zechariah asks, in an impious outburst, “How shall I know this?” His doubt earns him an unusual punishment: he is struck speechless by the angel, unable to speak until his son is born. We might wonder how a muted Zechariah serves as a warning to those who would question the power of the Lord to accomplish apparently impossible deeds? How does a still tongued punish a doubter?
Let's compare and contrast Gabriel's visit with Zechariah and his visit with Mary. First, both Mary and Zechariah are shocked by the appearance of an angel of the Lord. Sensing their fear, Gabriel assures both Mary and Zechariah in the power of the Lord and tells them not to be afraid. When Gabriel tells Mary that she will conceive and bear a son, her reaction sounds very familiar. Like Zechariah, she too questions the news, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” Despite her doubt, Mary is not silenced; she is not punished for questioning the angel's announcement. What's the difference btw Mary and Zechariah that merits this divergent treatment? There are the obvious differences. Zechariah is an elderly priest, a man. Mary is a young woman, a virgin. But it's not clear why these differences would matter in their treatment by the angel. We could point to Gabriel's greeting to Mary, “Hail! Full of grace!” and note Mary's unique nature as a sinless person—her immaculate conception in her mother's womb, a singular grace. Despite this gift, she still doubts Gabriel's news. Maybe the difference that matters is to be found in what it is that each doubts. Notice: Mary accepts the truth of Gabriel's news and only questions the method of conception. Zechariah doubts both the truth of Gabriel's news and questions how his wife will conceive. Mary receives in faith the news of an apparently impossible feat. Zechariah fails to trust fully the news from the one who stands before the Lord.
For his failure, Zechariah loses the ability to speak. Why is this a just punishment? Rather than use his gift of speech to praise the Lord for accomplishing the apparently impossible, the elderly priest uses a God-given gift to express a deeply seated doubt. Even as he worships at the temple's altar of incense, he willfully denies the possibility that God can do what He says He can do. Zechariah's tongue is stilled to prevent him from sullying the good news of his son's impending conception. When Elizabeth becomes pregnant with John the Baptist, Zechariah is unable to rejoice out loud. He is denied the privilege of praising God for this gift until John is born. However, his rejoicing at John's birth is all the sweeter b/c he has spent so long unable to speak. So sweet is his rejoicing that we sing the words of his song every morning at Lauds—the Canticle of Zechariah, “Blessed be the Lord, The God of Israel; He has come to His people and set them free.”
Doubt if you must how the Lord will accomplish His wonders in your life. But never doubt that He will. Rely wholly on His loving care and be vigilant in waiting for the miraclous appearances of His mercy. Let your mouth be filled with His praise and your tongue everyready to give thanks!
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