By: Rev. Paul Scalia
Saint Luke’s Gospel begins inauspiciously, with a doubting old man. We tend to skip to the familiar scenes: the archangel visiting Mary, the birth of our Lord, the visit of the shepherds, and so on. But the Gospel begins with doubt. And that might be helpful, for both this doubt and its resolution serve as good Advent lessons.
Luke begins with Zechariah – righteous, observant, childless. He is in the Temple, offering sacrifice. It was an honor that he rarely (if ever) would have received, for it required that his priestly division be chosen and then his lot from among his division. So there he stands, alone, offering incense, with the whole congregation of Israel awaiting him outside.
Then the angel of God appears with good news: “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall name him John” (Lk 1:13). The news is certainly good – indeed, an answer to prayer. But it seems impossible “because Elizabeth was barren and both were advanced in years” (1:7). And their age would make the bearing and raising of a child more challenging. So Zechariah asks a seemingly innocent question: “How shall I know this?” (1:18) In response, the angel punishes him: “Now you will be speechless and unable to talk…because you did not believe my words” (1:20).
Clearly, the question is not as innocent as it seems. In fact, his question “How shall I know this?” has the sense of a challenge: “Prove it.” His question demands that God fulfill our requirements, meet our standards. It puts God on trial. This is what it means to disbelieve: to reject the messengers God sends us, to insist that God meet our demands. Rather than bow down before the divine messenger and conform his mind to the message, Zechariah demands that God conform Himself to his earthly way of thinking.
And the punishment fits the crime – because if we do not believe, we have nothing to say. Nothing, certainly, in the sense of having no supernatural view, no divine voice to bring to a world turned in on itself. But disbelief makes us mute also in the sense that once we cut ourselves off from the divine message we become a mystery to ourselves. We can no longer speak coherently about who we are and why we exist. In the words of Vatican II, “When God is forgotten, the creature itself grows unintelligible.”
And so for us in a culture of disbelief, Zechariah is an apt figure. The modern world has heard and rejected God’s messenger – not an angel but Christ Himself speaking through His Body, the Church. And having rejected faith we now know little about ourselves and our purpose.
Thanks be to God, Zechariah’s story does not end here. Fast-forward to John’s birth and to the naming of the child. Zechariah writes, “John is his name,” thus showing his assent to the angel’s message nine months prior (1:63). “Immediately his mouth was opened, his tongue freed, and he spoke blessing God” (1:64). As disbelief rendered Zechariah speechless, without word or voice for anyone, so this assent of faith frees his tongue not only to speak but also to bless God in the Benedictus (cf. 1:68-79).
The Canticle of Zechariah, as it is called, has entered the Church’s liturgy not only as a prayer but indeed as a song. Every morning the Church uses his words to greet the dawn. And that captures the power of faith: music that scatters the darkness of doubt. And when we believe, the same grace is given us, to respond joyfully so as to enlighten “those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death” (1:79).
We do well to place Zechariah before us at the beginning of Advent, the beginning of the Church’s year. As we prepare for the Lord’s birth we seek to free ourselves from disbelief and renew our faith. By meditating on Zechariah’s journey we learn likewise to move from doubt to faith, from putting God in the dock (Prove it!) to accepting His word, from saying, “How shall I know this?” to exclaiming, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel!”