This season, Two Rivers writers are reflecting on the characters from the story of the birth of Jesus, especially those on the margins. Throughout the next week we will send out first person reflections on the people we hear about on Sunday.
I knew the stories. I was the one who read to the congregation every week of God’s faithfulness; and how many times had I preached about Sarah’s laughter in the face of visitors from the Lord? “The power of God is never to be mocked,” I’d told neighbors and friends from the pulpit, “not even when God’s messengers appear in disguise.”
For decades I instructed and prayed, in the temple and in our village. I was called to be a voice of wisdom, steadiness, truth. But no amount of wisdom could still the longing Elizabeth and I felt for a baby.
Along with God’s faithfulness, babies are another favorite theme in Scripture. As the years wore on without a child of our own, I’d learned to bury my pain and read those stories with the voice of someone else.
Nevertheless—you always think if you met an angel, your fear would translate to belief. You say you’d know better than the forefathers from those stories. You tell God you’d appreciate a sign. But when the angel appeared in the secret place of the temple to tell me my wife would have a son, there was no time to collect my thoughts—and shock has a way of knocking the truth free. The awe in my pounding chest couldn’t reach as deep as the hard stone of resignation in my gut. The angel’s proclamation found that stone and bounced back out of my heart:
“Us? Two dried-up old husks?” Time’s long past for an answer to our prayers, I thought, and then the angel responded—
“I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and tell you the good news. Now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you didn’t believe my words, which will come true at their proper time.”
So I left the presence of God, and looked out at the people watching me—emerging childless, wordless, faithless.
I’d been born into a priestly family. Since learning to speak I’d been groomed to preach, pray and lead. Now my wife spoke for us. Now I listened my prayers.
The absence of a child’s voice in our home grew without our own chatter to drown it out. But still, living without words for weeks is not the same as living in silence. My mind roiled as loudly as ever. My astonishment only crowded an already-full heart—intermingling with anger and embarrassment at being struck mute, buried grief now surfacing raw, fear rendering my breath shallow, that the angel’s words still wouldn’t—couldn’t- come to pass.
Then Elizabeth told me the news, and our joy swept all that away. Elation and wonder bubbled inside, making space—blessed space—for the silence of watchful waiting. I began to hear things I’d never heard before.
Elizabeth was just becoming uncomfortable—arthritis compounding her aches and pains, exhaustion growing by the day—when her “little cousin” appeared on our doorstep. I greeted Mary with concern, but Elizabeth shoved me out of the way with a whooping laugh of joy!
“Blessed are you among women,” she said to the girl, “and blessed is the child you will bear!”
Child? Lord have mercy. Mary was unmarried. What would become of her?
“Blessed,” my wife repeated, “is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!”
Her words pierced my heart, wedging it open. Did the women in their joyful embrace spare a pitying glance at the old, faithless priest in their midst? If they had, they would have looked into wrinkled eyes shining with tears of gratitude. If God hadn’t silenced me, I never would have borne witness to the sermons they preached that day.
When our wild boy came screaming into this world three months later, it began to seem that I’d be mute all my life. Neighbors offered toasts and patted me on the back, but they’d grown used to my new role in the background. A week after the birth, I do believe they would have forgotten to check with me, if Elizabeth’s choice of name hadn’t been so shocking.
“We want to name the child after you,” my friend Abraham said, “but your wife has her own ideals.” I nodded to affirm Elizabeth’s choice, but they didn’t know what I meant. My writing tablet appeared. His name is John, I wrote. “Praise be to the God of Israel!” my voice added with the Spirit. And that day we feasted for the gift of a newborn baby—and a newborn old, faithless priest.
These days I can speak again; but when people remark on our boy’s boldness and eloquence, I tell them he gets it from Elizabeth. I’m slower to speak now; I find it leaves more room to hear the wisdom Spirit is speaking all around me. Even so late in life, I’ve become a listener—for, as Mary preached, nothing is impossible with God.