A man in silence a woman in seclusion- and all this is good news! Monday, 4th Week in Advent – Luke 1:5-25
In the book of Malachi God declared “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will PREPARE THE WAY before me.” (Malachi 3:1). That wonderful prophecy is what we hear of in today’s Gospel.
So far as Judaism was concerned, Zecharias and Elizabeth were obscure and insignificant people. They were likely seen as having no favour with God because they were without children. There was a tremendous stigma attached to being without children, one which the woman probably felt most keenly. Barrenness was considered a humiliation and even God’s punishment.
The situation of Zechariah and Elizabeth as old and childless is presented in an historical context. Zechariah served as a priest in the Jerusalem Temple. One of the duties of the priests was to keep the brazier burning that stood on the altar of incense in front of the Holy of Holies. They would fill the brazier with fresh incense before the morning sacrifice, and again at the evening sacrifice
It is true that Zechariah was a priest but not of the high priestly family but rather simply of the tribe of priests. At this time in Israel’s history this didn’t represent anything very prominent. There were an estimated 7,000 to 20,000 who were of the priestly tribe. Yet this was a red-letter day for Zechariah: he had been chosen by lot from the hundreds of available priests, to offer incense for the Jewish nation. His childlessness, the great grief of his life, would have been on his mind as he prayed.
It was during such an occasion that God’s messenger, Gabriel, appears and foretells the birth of John the Baptist. “Zechariah, your prayer has been heard.” For how many years had Zechariah been making that prayer? For so many, that he had ceased to believe it would ever be answered. His doubt is so great that he asks for a sign. Is it a coincidence that the sign he is given is to be struck dumb? Unable to speak, all he can do now is listen. As God has listened to him over the years. As God listens to us.
In due course his wife Elizabeth conceived. We can imagine all the years she had been barren all the shame and how she could finally start hitting the streets, head to the mall and show off her great news. But it says she “remained in seclusion. Here we find a man in silence a woman in seclusion. She spent months in retreat and thanked God for taking away her disgrace in being childless.
Zechariah and Elizabeth were not expecting these amazing things to happen to them; they were simply ordinary pious Jews living according to the Law. They belonged among the Lord’s own ‘little ones’ of the earth, among the ‘God fearing’ masses. The things that happen in our lives are normally undramatic but just as much a part of God’s plan.
God had brought life where there was none. A strange thing happens when God starts to draw near. When Jesus shows up, life begins to stir in the most impossible places. From barren wombs to occupied tombs, life springs up where you would least expect it.
The front page of the Jerusalem News would not have had any idea that the creator of universe was coming among them and that the prophet to prepare the way was now conceived. If we want to prepare for Christmas we will have to decide who defines what is really important. We may have to give a little less weight to the mass of political and popular news cycles if we want to take in the truly great news of God.
Certainly, God’s ways are not our ways; and the very people who have always tried to remain fully loyal to the Lord, are sometimes going to find themselves called to even deeper faith involving an ever more privileged closeness to God.