When Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics remember the Feast of the Annunciation, we must bear in mind that there are actually two interrelated stories going on at the same time. The first and obviously more significant story depicts the Annunciation of the birth of our Lord Jesus to the Theotokos. The second story is sometimes easily overshadowed. This is understandable. The second story chronicles the annunciation and birth of St. John the Baptist, the Forerunner of our Lord. Both of these interconnected events offer us important insight into God's desire for us - a God who unceasingly desires that we grow in authentic relationship and dialogue with Him. Let us take a few minutes now and reflect upon the events which led to the birth of St. John, in the second story.
In the Gospel passage (Luke 1:5-25; 57-80) we read that John's parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, were both righteous people. They were getting on in years; in fact, they were both elderly. Zechariah was a well-seasoned priest who had labored for God all of his life. His years of loyal temple service gave him valuable experience. After all his years of faithful labor, this God-loving veteran of priestly ministry probably felt he had a pretty good handle on things.
One day, as he was serving in the temple, the archangel Gabriel appeared to him and said, "Do not be afraid, Zechariah." The archangel then told him that he and his wife would have a son. Zechariah was confused. Until that moment, he had naturally assumed that, as he and his wife were elderly, Elizabeth could not possibly bear a child. According to the popular knowledge of the day, it was humanly impossible for Elizabeth to conceive. The popular knowledge was probably right.
Zechariah responded to the angel with a question. Perhaps his response to Gabriel was offered with more than a little bit of cynicism, as it reads like a subtle challenge. He asked, "But how shall I know this?" The Greek phraseology of this statement suggests that Zechariah was interpreting this message in terms of himself. The young virgin Mary also responded verbally with a question to this same angel. Nevertheless, her question appears to lack the same self-reference. Mary asked: "How shall this be?" and she experienced a very different result from her visitation. Despite Zechariah's faithful service, his apparent excessive self-reliance prevented him from even considering such a possibility.
Furthermore, Zechariah may even have become agitated with the archangel. On a spiritual level, his inner disposition could reflect the following attitude: "This is reality as I know it. Do not disturb it and my service to God within it." Whatever the precise articulation of his internal dialogue may have been, his response indicated an unwillingness to accept a bigger reality than the one to which he adhered.
God knew what was frozen in his heart. Zechariah needed to grow if he was to participate in the profoundly greater reality presented to him by the angel. And so, what did Gabriel do? The angel responded with a type of call to order. In effect, he "pulls rank" on Zechariah and says, "I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God; and have been sent to speak to you and convey to you these glad tidings " (1:19). Is it possible for any of us to imagine the utter terror poor Zechariah must have felt at that moment? How well would most of us respond to an angel pulling rank on us?
The story continues with the archangel silencing Zechariah. His tongue was tied by God. Perhaps he was even struck deaf (1:62). This action abruptly ends the communication between Zechariah and the angel. The end of this exchange, however, may have signified a new beginning. This new beginning may mark a deeper, more authentic, dialogue between Zechariah and God.
What happened to Zechariah is extraordinary! Zechariah could easily have responded by further hardening his heart during this enforced silence. This may well have been the response of another person. After all, his being made mute took so much away from him. Perhaps the most difficult thing to endure was his inability to worship in his accustomed way and function as a priest of the temple. These stunning losses, however, were not permanent. Happily, the birth of his son John marked a kind of spiritual rebirth for him. We see indications of this when his ability to speak was restored to him. The story states that his "tongue was loosed and he spoke blessing God." This, too, is amazing! Zechariah's immediate praising God offers strong evidence that he used those months of silence to develop a fresh, more authentic way of communicating with God. This was no easy task, as this experience must have plunged him into a world of inner chaos. Perhaps it was because of the imposed vacuum of silence and isolation, that Zechariah could now search for a new connection with God. Could it be that this divinely enforced discipline was actually a hidden gift from God?
The scripture also tells us that after he was released from his mute condition he was filled with the Holy Spirit. Zechariah then prophesied about the vital work his son John would undertake. His very prophesy bespeaks the newfound freedom, light, and joy that was growing in his heart. This is a far cry from previous days when he may have thought he knew it all, when he had a pretty good handle on things.
Zechariah's story offers us at least two important lessons. First of all, we know that as truly God-loving as he was, Zechariah had no conscious awareness of the hardness lurking in his own heart. This is a vital concern for Christians to bear in mind today, as these places exist within all of us, even when we don't "feel" them. Only God knows every corner of our hardened hearts and how our hearts need to grow. As with Zechariah, there may come a time when God will confront us and present us with a greater reality than what we have previously known. This is an even more pressing lesson, however, for those of us so-called religious experts! We religious experts can easily fall into the trap of thinking that we have seen it all. A number of us may also even believe that we have a pretty good handle on things. It is as if we know every manner and direction from which the Spirit of God may blow. This includes our understanding of how God may be calling men and women to serve Him. We can even delude ourselves into identifying our narrow self-interest with the will God. In essence, this is what happened to Zechariah.
And the second lesson may be even more important: That it is never too late! It is never too late for any of us to set our lives and hearts straight before God, as He never gives up on us. This is as true for the old as it is for the young. Zechariah probably believed he had seen everything there was to see for a man his age. This is a common spiritual pitfall. It is easy for persons who have attained his level of experience to interpret reality more deeply in terms of themselves. Whenever any of us fall into this trap, we are, knowingly or not, playing God! This is perhaps why Zechariah could not easily accept the angel's message.
We too, can easily forget how small we are and how great the loving God is. The Scriptures bear witness here that the priest, Zechariah, was "righteous" and yet, he still forgot! Zechariah's example offers all of us hope. It offers hope to the young, but his example particularly offers hope to those older, more experienced persons whose lives have accrued scar upon scar of Gospel-negating experiences.
Zechariah's enforced silence was the context from which he set his heart right before the living God. His words even hint that in these very depths he may have even been granted a foretaste of paradise. These are the words of hope, expectation, and joy Zechariah spoke as he prophesied about the work of his son John, who prophesied the work of the Son of God. These are words which still bear witness of glad tidings for us today:
And you, child,
Will be called the prophet of the most High;
For you will go before the Lord to prepare His ways,
To give knowledge of salvation to His people,
In the forgiveness of their sins,
Through the tender mercy of our God,
When the day shall dawn upon 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.