The gospel tells us that Zechariah lived a holy, upright life. The angel came to visit him while he faithfully fulfilled his priestly duties. Gabriel found Elizabeth’s husband in the Temple, the most splendidly divine place imaginable. The humble priest busied himself burning incense, praying, surrounded by crowds of pious people praying in the Temple court outside.
In other words, the archangel came to the place most frequented by the holy heroes of Advent, the place where they came to await the fulfillment of the Lord’s ancient promises. Where Gabriel appeared to Zechariah, everyone knew Elijah was to come again, to direct the hearts of children to their fathers and to prepare a people fit for the Lord.
The angel came to this most believable of settings, and proceeded to tell Zechariah something which hardly even defied the laws of nature. You and your wife will have a son!
Wonderful news, yes. Another instance of God’s fruitfulness, to which the Old Testament had borne so much witness through the centuries. But the rules of the birds and the bees would remain intact. Zechariah was not asked to believe anything too outlandish. Just that he and his wife would have an unexpected son.
Meanwhile, the archangel visited the Blessed Virgin in a much less holy city, in a part of the country as pagan as it was Jewish. Nazareth has a great name now. But at the time, as we know from reading the gospels, the Jews thought of the town as an unmentionable backwater, in a region over-run by distasteful foreigners who cared only about commerce.
And what Gabriel proposed to Mary demanded a much greater leap of faith. He told her that something would happen which had never happened before. She asked the angel an honest question, got an enormously mysterious answer, and humbly submitted.
Zechariah, on the other hand—the faithful priest, piously awaiting the Messiah, ministering amid plumes of incense in the holy place—he could not manage to believe what the angel said to him.
Behold, the Lord will make your son a mighty prophet! Because the fullness of time has come, and the way must be prepared for the Savior! The splendor of God will be revealed in awesome glory. The hand of the Lord will do this!
–But, uh…We’re old.
Perhaps good Zechariah had grown somewhat obtuse with age. Perhaps—considering the little punishment that he received for his unbelief—his problem was that he talked too much.
We may find ourselves frequently in the temple, too. Faithfully exercising our religion. We may count ourselves among the holy People of God.
But the contrast between the contexts in which Zechariah and Mary responded to the angel, and the contrast between their respective responses in those different contexts—we have to pause and consider.
Lord, help me not to talk too much. Even though I am old, deaf, and hard-headed like Zechariah, I know that You can make me young, open, and ready like Mary. You want to give us a Christmas this year unlike any we have ever known. You want this Christmas to be as new, and as wonderful, as any Christmas that has ever been. Preparing for the Mayan Apocalypse is nothing compared to preparing for the Christmas 2012 that You, Lord, want to give us. Help us to be ready.