“But now you will be speechless and unable to talk
until the day these things take place,
because you did not believe my words.” - Luke 1:20
We all know how discomfiting it is to lack anything to say – for example, when an unemployed person searching for a job is put on the spot about his future plans, when a couple struggling to conceive is awkwardly asked about their childbearing future, or when one is dealing with extreme loss or unimaginable emotional affliction. Words do not flow easily in these situations, precisely because to exist in them is to lack any relevant perspective, wisdom, or experience for dealing with them. Here one touches dark abysses of loneliness and incoherence. Absent from God, human beings in such circumstances tend to secrete a protective outer shell of resignation, cynicism, or else self-deceiving optimism.
In today’s Gospel, God mounts a decisive offensive against Zechariah’s resigned cynicism, quite dramatically exposing and making use of the affliction of Zechariah’s childlessness. In the face of God’s tremendous promise of a son, which directly addresses the most enduring and painful wound of his life, Zechariah responds: “How?” Harsh perhaps, but God punishes such faithlessness with speechlessness. Since he has placed himself outside the context of faith, God wants to make it dramatically clear that Zechariah truly has nothing to say, nothing to offer. It seems that in these opening scenes of the gospel, as the Gospel of Jesus enters the stage of history, God quite deliberately wants to excise from human beings their merely human perspective and to replace it with the unseen, but unambiguous, promise of joy. The axe lies at the root; the judge is taking his seat.
The choice for Zechariah is clear: either exist most fundamentally on the limited basis of your own experience (which is never entirely sufficient to navigate the loneliness and difficulty of life), or exist on the basis of the luminous darkness of faith, hope, and love, which always promise a joy greater than can be seen or understood. We know that the terminus of Zechariah’s story is not punishment, but praise, the opening of his mouth in a song that echoes throughout the world every morning in the Church’s prayer. At the birth of his son, Zechariah proclaims: “The Lord, the God of Israel, has come to his people and set them free...”
Essentially, this gospel, and the whole of Advent, located as they are in the context of darkness – the darkness of the approaching winter solstice and the lack of faith thereby symbolized – are invitations to grow day by day in trust that even the abyss of incomprehension, which we touch in our afflictions and struggles, is enfolded by a greater darkness: that of God’s fidelity and promise, unseen by us, but given to us as our deepest bedrock of certainty.
Let us pray,
God, you will ask us to exist beyond our own certainties.
Give it to us then to remember Zechariah,
First his punishment and later his incredible consolation,
That you made him into a witness, opening his mouth in praise amidst the darkness of faithlessness;
We, too, lack faith. We, too, you promise to deliver;
Help our unbelief.
This reflection was written by Justin Bartkus