This post is part of the series “Four Hymns of Christmas”
Speaking to communicate is uniquely human, almost. In the universe, the complete list of beings that communicate with words is as follows: God, angels, demons, and humans1.
We go to marvelous lengths to maintain communication with each other. We’ve constructed a world-spanning network of computers, mostly to send words back and forth to each other (and, increasingly, cat pictures). We expect communication so strongly that when people are silent, we assume something’s wrong. It’s so unusual that we give it a name: “the silent treatment.”
As we re-enter the story of Christmas after Mary’s Magnificat, Zechariah hasn’t spoken for nine months.
To be fair, he kind of did it to himself. Gabriel—the same angel that announced Jesus to Mary—visited Zechariah while he was serving in the temple; it was his turn to burn the incense.
Gabriel proclaimed to Zechariah that his prayers for a son had been heard and that God would answer them. And not merely answer them, but give him a son who would be “great before the Lord” and “filled with the Holy Spirit,” who would “go before [the Lord] in the spirit and power of Elijah…to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”
And Zechariah says, “Yeah, right.” For which Gabriel curses him to silence until the boy—not yet conceived!—is born.
This seems a bit unfair. I seem to remember that when Sarai heard she would bear a son, she laughed at God. Right to His face. And she didn’t get struck dumb. But Zechariah expresses a moment of doubt that an old priest and an old barren woman will have a child, and bam! Silence.
Then things start to happen.
Elizabeth gets pregnant. It had to be an awkward conversation—can you call it a conversation if one party can’t speak?—when he got home. What’s ancient Hebrew sign language for, “An angel told me we’re going to have a son; we must go to bed immediately”? I suspect Elizabeth, once she figured out what he was telling her, had the same reaction Zechariah did: “Yeah, right.”
Then Elizabeth’s cousin Mary, a virgin, gets pregnant. That’s… weird. Weirder, if possible, than Elizabeth’s pregnancy.
Then Elizabeth says this same Mary’s going to come visit. How long? Well, just until the baby arrives. Three months? Yes, Zechariah, three months.
Now, there’s no good reason John the Baptist had to be born by Mary’s cousin. Matthew and Luke both give these tremendous genealogies for Jesus, demonstrating His claim to the throne on both His mother’s side and Joseph’s side. But there are no prophecies about John’s family, and no genealogies to support them. Just Zechariah, of the division of Abijah, and his wife Elizabeth, of the daughters of Aaron. Priests on both sides, to be sure, but nothing like the lineage of Christ.
But I believe God had His reasons for making them related, among them that Mary needed help, and not just from Elizabeth.
So Zechariah gets to spend three months with a very old and increasingly pregnant Elizabeth and a very young and newly pregnant Mary. And he can’t speak. Priest or not, he had to be at least a little annoyed with God for treating him this way. Or maybe he was so overjoyed at the prospect of a son that he didn’t mind. Either way, nine months is a long time.
Finally, the day arrives! Well, sort of. John is born, but Zechariah’s punishment doesn’t end then. No, he has eight more days to wait, until they take John to the temple to be circumcised and named. Elizabeth names him John, but that’s not enough. God was waiting for Zechariah: had he learned to believe?
He had. He writes, “His name is John,” and his voice immediately returns.
What would your first words be?
Maybe, “I love you, Elizabeth.” Maybe, “Let me tell you all a story….” Surely something poetic; he’d had nine months to come up with the perfect first words.
Indeed, his words are perfect; nobody has ever come up with better ones.
Before you begin, go read the Benedictus in your favorite Bible, or just click here if you prefer: Luke 1:68–79. Then come back; we’ll be right here.
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,” he cries, “for he has visited and redeemed his people!” (Luke 1:68) These are the words of Gabriel from nine months ago: John’s primary task is turning Israel back to God in preparation for the visitation of the Lord.
Here’s something interesting: Zechariah, filled with the Holy Spirit, is speaking as if the work of Christ is already accomplished. He inhabits that weird prophetic space where time expands and contracts until it’s hard to tell what has been from what will be.
Nonetheless, the prophecy is powerful: Zechariah knows that all the promises of old are about to be fulfilled. The time has come, he proclaims, for the final salvation. The freedom, he sings, “that we…might serve him [God] without fear.”
Like Mary, Zechariah’s first instinct is to bless God. Like Mary, he then digs into the history of Israel. From the vocabulary of redemption to the promise that salvation would be from “the house of his servant David”, Zechariah reminds us that God has planned this from the beginning.
But Zechariah’s not done! He has so much more to say. The people, remember, all those neighbors and relatives who had come up for the naming ceremony, are a bit confused. He had named the child John, but that was absurd. Nobody in the family was named John… nobody they knew was named John.
And then there’s the business of Zechariah having been silent for nine months and eight days. They had talked about it, but only behind closed doors where Elizabeth wouldn’t hear them. What was wrong with him?
Kind of a weird guy. Isn’t he a priest? I heard something funny happened one day while he was in the temple. And now he’s given his kid a funny name. Is he okay?
Whoa! He’s talking! Nine months, and today he decides to talk? No, not talk. Sing. This kid is going to have the strangest childhood. I suppose we should listen to what he has to say.
“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High!”
What?! Look, Zechariah, we haven’t had a prophet in four hundred years. You can’t seriously expect us to believe your son is the first one since Malachi. We’re not even sure what a prophet would do for us…
“You will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people, in the forgiveness of their sins.”
Oh. Well that clears it right up. God’s going to come right down, is He, and this son of yours will sweep the road before him?
Yes, Zechariah exults, that’s exactly what’s going to happen! “The sunrise shall visit us from on high, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
I don’t feel like I’m in darkness, Zechariah. Hey, just because you couldn’t talk doesn’t mean we went blind. We’re not in the shadow of death, we’re in the shadow of Rome. We don’t need a sunrise, we need an army!
Oh, how do you tell a people that what they think is light is in fact the deepest darkness? Zechariah’s son John, later called the Baptizer, is about to find out.
This is Zechariah’s song of preparation, the second hymn of Christmas.
We may follow him in this way: in any adversity, whether four hundred years of silence from God, or nine months of silence for yourself, lift a song of praise to God. Remember His promises, the old covenant and the new covenant.
Sing into the darkness of this world, in the depth of winter, that the sunrise is coming!
And Balaam’s donkey. ↩