As we move toward the conclusion of the Advent season, we ponder the events surrounding Christ’s birth. The penultimate focus is the events leading up to the birth of St. John the Baptist, and in particular, the narrative of Zechariah and Elizabeth. While there are certainly many teachings to be drawn from this passage, there is value in pondering the imposition of silence upon Zechariah. This aspect of the story is particularly applicable to us because we live in an age marked by a lack of reflection and silence, of often stridently expressed opinions, and of opposition to the hidden things of God.
The Gospel opens with a description of Zechariah and Elizabeth as devout observers of the Law who have reached their later years without having children. Zechariah, in his priestly ministry, is selected to enter the Temple and offer incense at the designated hour. There, he encounters the Archangel Gabriel, who announces the birth of John the Baptist. Zechariah wonders,
How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.
For this question, he is rebuked by Gabriel for his lack of faith:
You will be silent and unable to talk until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled at their proper time (Luke 1:19).
This rebuke causes some bewilderment on our part because Zechariah’s response is not unlike that of the Blessed Mother, who said, How will this be, since I know not man? (Lk 1:34) In our puzzlement, we must remember that we have before us only a written text. We cannot hear the tone of voice that was used or see other clues that might indicate the attitude of Zechariah as he expresses this wonder. There must have been differences, for Mary’s question brings reassurance from Gabriel, while Zechariah’s question is met with rebuke.
Whatever the reason, let us ponder the punishment declared by the Archangel Gabriel.
It seems a mistake to regard Gabriel’s reaction as merely punitive. Rather, we ought also to see it as a kind of remedy. In effect, The Archangel draws Zechariah into a kind of holy silence in the face of the great mystery of John the Baptist’s conception. This silence will give him time to reflect without speaking.
There is a human tendency to be analytical. Our intellect is central to our glory and we have well used it to master nature and unlock many aspects of the created world. And yet glorious though our intellect is, it is also something over which we tend to stumble. There is a time to become quiet and ponder in reverent silence the fact that there are many mysteries beyond our ability to analyze or dissect.
For many who think merely in the flesh, mysteries are something to be solved, something to be conquered. We moderns, especially, presume that anything we do not currently understand, anything currently mysterious, we will one day fully understand; it is just a matter of time.
But the Christian tradition speaks more cautiously about mystery. Mystery is something that commands reverence. Mysteries are often something meant to be appreciated and respected, not merely to be set upon in order to be solved or unraveled. This is especially true with mysteries related to God, and to some extent those related to the human person.
Consider, for example, the mystery of your own person. Although you know much about yourself, much lies hidden. Many things about us defy simple analysis or categorization. In the face of this mystery, silence and reverence are essential. And while our insights about our inner self grow deeper with the passing years, we can never really say that we have conquered the mystery. Scripture says,
More tortuous than all else is the human heart, and beyond cure. Who can understand it? “I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind (Jer 17:9-10).
And if we are to have this reverence for our very self, we must also have it for one another. We must reverence the mystery of one another, never demanding to know things that are not ours to know. And we must never arrogantly presume that we have someone “figured out.” To claim this trivializes the human person.
Using an a fortiori argument, then, if reverence and a holy silence are appropriate before human mysteries, how much more so toward the mysteries of God and His ways? In many places, Scripture commands us to a holy silence before the mystery of God:
- Silence, all people, in the presence of the LORD, who stirs forth from his holy dwelling (Zechariah 2:17).
- Be silent before the Sovereign LORD, for the day of the LORD is near (Zephaniah 1:7).
- Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth (Psalm 46:10).
- Then Job answered the Lord: “I am unworthy—how can I reply to you? I put my hand over my mouth. I spoke once, but I have no answer—twice, but I will say no more” (Job 40:4-6).
And thus we see in today’s Gospel that Zechariah has imposed upon him a holy silence in order that he might reflect more deeply and reverently on the mysteries of God. He is not to speak; he is to be still and silent before the Lord, who stirs from His holy dwelling. Words reduce mystery and seek to capture it. Zechariah is to ponder in reverent silence. Not one word will he utter until it all comes to pass.
Zechariah also manifests another common human tendency: the tendency to scoff at things we do not understand. Rather than drawing back and seeking to learn in holy silence and docility, we scoff at how unlikely or uncertain things are. Because we cannot understand something, we declare that it cannot possibly be so. Never mind that with God all things are possible or that over time our sciences have shown us things we never dreamed possible, discoveries of processes in nature that boggle the mind.
Yes, there is a time to speak, a time to ask, and a time to open our mouth in teaching. But there is also a time to sit quietly, to listen, to learn, and to ponder in silence. There is a time to reverence mystery in quiet, wordless admiration. There is a time to accept humbly that there are many things beyond our ability to know or understand.
In this reverent silence there comes forth a kind of holy wisdom, a wisdom not easily reduced to words. It is the wisdom that appreciates that the acceptance of mystery is itself an insight. It is a silence that opens us upward and outward, away from the tinier world of things that we have “all figured out.”
Zechariah is reduced by Gabriel to silence, a holy and reflective silence before the mysterious and merciful work of God.
And what of us who are approaching the mystery of the incarnation and who live in a world steeped in mystery? Do we scoff at what we do not understand? Do we rush to open our mouth in doubt or ridicule, or do we silently ponder and listen, seeking to be taught? Do we accept that humility both opens the door to wisdom and is a kind of wisdom itself?
Find silence before Christmas. God stirs from His holy dwelling.