The Scriptures in Advent present us with a number of excellent role models of faith, but the father of John the Baptist is not one of them. Zechariah, a priest of the Law of Moses, serves rather as a negative example, at least at the beginning of his intriguing story. The account of how he came to deeply embrace the Will of God teaches us three valuable lessons about maturing in faith this Advent.
Advent Lesson One: Prayer Attunes Us to the Will of God
In Luke’s account of the story surrounding Jesus’s birth (cf. Luke 1:5-25), the Archangel Gabriel makes a sudden appearance beside the altar in the Temple where Zechariah, the duty priest that day, was offering prayers and incense. The angel caught him by surprise – to say the least. As we know, unexpected encounters or crises can bring out some of our less-desirable characteristics, and that was definitely the case with Zechariah. He must have been having a bad day when Gabriel showed up.
The Gospel passage does not relate the priest’s tone of voice in that encounter, but we get the sense that his words had an impudent ring to them like, “Listen, I’m an old man. My wife is going to have a baby – seriously? And I’m supposed to know this how?” A tantrum is not the best way to react to the news that your son will be the Messiah’s Precursor.
But let’s be fair: perhaps Zechariah was distracted or tired. Maybe he was discouraged at God’s seeming lack of response to his prayers and had given up on everything but the routine. Lest we are too hard on him we have to admit that distraction, fatigue, tedium, discouragement, etc. afflict every believer from time to time. They can cause us to be spiritually numb or unreceptive to the things of God.
The price Zechariah paid for his mulish behavior, however, was having to spend the next nine months reflecting on said mystery in silence: Gabriel struck the old man deaf and mute. His penance – the silence, prayer, meditation, and humility that the angel imposed – are really a short course in how to discern the Will of God.
Thankfully we do not have to be a curmudgeon like him to learn that lesson. We can adopt these virtues as a matter of regular habit; in fact, they are the primary means of knowing God’s Will. Lacking an inner capacity for prayer and silence, we cannot be receptive to spiritual things. We run the risk of being oblivious to grace when it comes seeking us out in unexpected ways.
Lesson Two: God Answers Every Prayer – in His Own Time
Zechariah’s snippy attitude is surprising because the first words out of Gabriel’s mouth were actually quite encouraging: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard.” Wouldn’t we all love to hear an archangel tell us that?
As a dedicated priest of the Old Covenant, Zechariah would have been praying for the salvation of his people, or more tangible, for the coming of the Messiah. In his old age, he most definitely would not have been praying for a baby. Therefore, when the angel said, “Your prayer has been heard,” Gabriel was telling him that he was about to see the Savior for whom he had been faithfully praying all his life. The “fullness of time” (cf. Galatians 4:4) had indeed arrived – but Zechariah missed it.
The lesson here is that half-hearted prayers – superficial, empty, rote – are insincere and ineffectual prayers. Zechariah’s fault is something we all experience: he went through the motions of prayer without really believing they would ever be answered, only to find that God actually did take his prayer seriously but answered it in a timeframe that Zechariah did not expect.
In Advent, we learn that the true believer does not demand that God answer his prayer right now. “There is an appointed time for everything,” says the writer of Ecclesiastes (3:1). He trusts that God hears and answers every prayer and is overjoyed at God’s answers, even if they come at unexpected moments; namely, in God’s time.
Lesson Three: God Answers Every Prayer – in His Own Way
When Gabriel went on to describe how God was answering the prayer, Zechariah must have blanked out on the “your prayer has been heard” item and focused only on the seemingly ludicrous part about his elderly wife having a baby. It is understandable that he skipped over the good news because he was so shocked by what followed. It is kind of like hearing someone pay you a compliment and then say, “but….” Most people ignore everything before the “but….” Apparently, Zechariah did too.
When God answered Zechariah’s prayer, it was not in the way the old man expected – or wanted. The answer pushed the priest out of his proverbial comfort zone and involved him in a plan that made some demands on him. It was not his plan; it was not on his terms. But isn’t that the point of doing God’s Will rather than our own?
I once read an intriguing message on a marquee in front of a little church that said, “We send up a ten cent prayer and expect a million dollar answer.” True. We all want God to answer our prayers in a grand way, or at least in a way that suits us; but honestly, are we willing to change ourselves in response to God’s answer? After all, it is our own prayer that He is answering.
The lesson here is that spiritual growth is a risky enterprise. It makes demands on us and forces us to confront reality at a very deep level, reality being God’s way of doing things, God’s Truth. Spiritual maturity is only won at the cost of self-renunciation, which requires doing things God’s way and ditching all those venal habits and selfish attitudes and lifestyles of which we are so fond. That is the point of those wonderful little parables about people seeking something passionately and then selling everything to buy it once they have found it. In the season of preparation for Christmas, the Church asks us to root out all those obstacles to grace in our hearts and become deep believers, or at least to take a few steps forward in the journey.
If Zechariah’s story tells us anything it is that chronological age is no guarantee of spiritual maturity. It takes work to overcome our self-centered habits. Most of the time we are not even aware of those sinful tendencies because they are immersed in the dark world of our unexamined attitudes and attachments. We need light to root them out. Perhaps that is why God sent an archangel – a messenger of light – to expose Zechariah’s radical unbelief.
Thankfully, the Zechariah saga does not end with him as a permanent deaf-mute. He endured his penance as a purification of soul and entered into the depths of his own divinely-revealed religion, perhaps for the first time since he embraced that faith in a more innocent age of his life. Silence, prayer, listening and discernment led him to accept the Will of God at a very deep level of his being – on God’s terms and in God’s time.
The Joy of Faith
Zechariah had been praying for a Messiah and got an unexpected answer. Unbelievably, a child of his own flesh was destined to “turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God” (Luke 1:16), and the child’s name would be John, a name in Hebrew that means “God is gracious”.
Nine months later Zechariah declared with a new conviction, “John is his name” (Luke 1:63). The gracious God really had answered his prayer.