Archives, Pondering, Songs of Assent

A Merciful Silence (Zechariah Part 1)

Resignation is a soul-deadening, light-obscuring posture of the soul. There is a hopeless inevitability in it that slowly shuts the door to God’s comforting light. When Zechariah the priest entered the temple to burn incense that day a double-portion of resignation is residing in his soul. As an Israelite, he is the member of a conquered people. As a man he is the husband of a barren wife.

Gabriel has great insight into the barrenness of Zechariah’s soul, and he begins with the most personally deadening dynamic residing there. “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son and you shall call his name John…(Luke 1:13).

When Zechariah finishes his silent nine months of this pregnancy, we realize that the rest of Gabriel’s proclamation did, in fact, register. But in the moment, that first statement is all he appears to have heard. While Gabriel delivers God’s full message, his proclamation contains too much information. Zechariah seems to find it rather irrelevant to know whom his child is going to be or what this child is going to do. He is reeling at the thought that this child is going to exist.

How do we know? By his response to the angel. “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years ” (Lk. 1:18). Read: “Are you suggesting that I go home and bring up the most painful conversation in our marriage after we have finally resigned ourselves to a life without children?” Resignation doesn’t budge easily. It dismisses hope-especially preposterous hope about an old pain that has been buried for years.

While Gabriel’s response is in the form of a rebuke, I think it was truly a mercy. Zechariah was unable to talk to Elizabeth out of his bitterness of soul. The spiritual gift/discipline of nine months of silence rested well on this priest’s tongue.

I am well aware as I write this blog that couples struggling with infertility could easily say, “If Zechariah changed his tune, its because his most personal longing was eventually fulfilled.” To those who have lost a job recently, foreclosed on a house, or declared bankruptcy, at least Zechariah was still employed and had a home; no one was going to take away the opportunity to exercise his vocation as priest or look over his shoulder at his every financial move.

And even if our resignations are not so blatant, the same signature of skepticism and despair can so easily shrink our souls. I find myself asking the question, “Is resignation simply the other side of unfulfilled longing’s coin, or might there be a different currency all together? And here is where Zechariah, on the other end of his long silence, has something very significant to say to us.

We realize that the angel’s words of powerful hope were planted in his soul, even though he could not acknowledge them in the moment. When Zechariah is given back his speech at John’s circumcision, we get clues to the long, silent healing of his heart. He’s been meditating on Malachi. Zechariah affirms that this child will be the second Elijah who will go and prepare the way for the Messiah. On the far side of the four hundred year comma, Zechariah has ingested Gabriel’s message deeply and, over time, his soul has shifted from resignation to expectation. What a merciful silence.

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