When we receive our writing assignments, we “sign up” by putting our names by the dates for which we want to reflect and respond to the readings. I’d love to be able to say that I thoughtfully and prayerfully choose the readings I will write about, but the reality is that the spreadsheet for signing up usually arrives in the midst of a myriad of other tasks which are all demanding my attention and so I usually send up a quick prayer and try to choose two readings about 2 weeks apart, simply to make it easier to hit the deadlines.
But today, I have hit the reading lottery jackpot! This is one of my favorite, favorite stories in the Bible! I love Zechariah and Elizabeth because they remind me that God works amazing things through perfectly ordinary people. And I love the reminder that God is funny, I mean God is really funny.
Zechariah and Elizabeth are a devout Jewish couple, just going through life trying to do their best. Unfortunately for them, they are not blessed with children. For those of us who have lived through a multitude of people pressing you to have children, asking (what you thought were private and intimate) details of why you don’t have children, and explaining how their third cousin once removed finally got pregnant, we have some small insight into the deep disappointment with which Zechariah and Elizabeth lived. Childless women of Elizabeth’s time were not just interrogated, they were mocked and ridiculed. So it is at this late stage in the game, that we meet Zach and Liz, ‘righteous in God’s sight’ living outside of Jerusalem in the hill country. Not only are they childless, but they are also country folk! My people!
Zechariah is a priest and it is time for his division to head into Jerusalem to perform their regular duty in the Temple-liturgy, he is just doing his job. Zechariah draws “the lot” and is appointed to go into the inner sanctuary to offer incense while the others remain praying outside. Zechariah’s regular duty provides the setting for something extraordinary.
Gabriel shows up. There, standing to the right of the altar of incense is not just an angel, but one of the archangels. Zechariah gets scared.
Just as with Mary, Gabriel tells Zechariah not to be afraid, that his prayers have been heard and a child will be born. However, Zechariah takes a different approach than Mary. Zechariah argues with the angel. How can this be? I’m old and have you met my wife? (How many times do I argue when I should probably just be quiet!?!)
Can’t you just picture Gabriel sighing and taking a deep breath before answering? (I wonder if angels when appearing to us can roll their eyes?) “Listen, Zach, I stand before God and HE sent me to give you this good news, but since you have decided to just give me wordy arguments, you will now be without words until the child is born.” (I’ve taken the liberty of paraphrasing but, see, I told you God was funny!)
One thinks immediately of Abraham and Sarah, and how when Sarah laughed at the news she would have a child in her old age, God named the baby, Isaac which means laughter. Again, pretty funny, God.
From today’s first reading, we think of Manoah and his wife, who though childless, also conceived after a visit from an angel. Their child, Samson was consecrated to God, just as Zechariah and Elizabeth’s child would be. Having a child long after child-bearing years is not a stretch for God, nor is it even something new. In this way, the story of their child, John, takes its place in a long-standing sequence of events all for God’s purposes; the fulfillment of God’s promises.
The stories of these sons; Isaac, Samson, and John all prepare us for the coming of The Son. It also reminds us, that in the midst of the big things, and one could argue that the Incarnation was the biggest of the big, God responds to the smallest of hopes and desires as well. It is in the midst of ordinary people, doing their best to live out their faith on a day to day basis, that God resides and moves. Ahhh, that means there is hope for me yet.
See why I love this story?
Sheryl O’Connor is happiest in her role as wife to Tom. Together, they are discerning Tom’s call to the Diaconate and he is in his Aspirancy year with the Diocese of Kalamazoo. She is the Director of Youth Evangelization at her parish collaborative.