The following homily was delivered by School President Fr. Aristotle C. Dy, SJ during the Grade School mass last 19 December 2014.
As we continue on our Advent journey, we are given today the story of an annunciation—not the one to Mary, but the one to Zechariah announcing the birth of John the Baptist. In parallel with this story, we are given in the first reading the account of the birth of Samson to Manoah and Hannah. Both are beautiful accounts of God’s action in the lives of His people. In both stories, placed firmly in the prophetic tradition, we have a childless couple in their old age. Their singular sorrow in life is that they have not been blessed with a child, even if they have lived righteously in the sight of God. It is the same, actually, as the story of Abraham and Sara, who were also quite old when God intervened and promised them a son, who became Isaac, the first of many descendants for God’s people.
But people have short memories, and when the same pattern unfolds in the life of Zechariah, he does not see it right away. He was a godly man who was tuned to God’s voice. He was born into a priestly family and it was his privilege to be chosen by lot to enter the inner court of the temple to offer sacrifice to God. It was rare to be chosen more than once in a lifetime for this service, so we can imagine Zechariah’s joy and awe when he was selected.
Saint Luke records that the people wondered at Zechariah’s delay and were amazed that he was speechless when he withdrew from the inner sanctuary. They rightly perceived that he had a special encounter with God. God’s angelic messenger greeted Zechariah with a blessing beyond his expectations. “Your prayer is heard! You will have a son! And his mission will be great for all of Israel. ” Now that seemed like a lot for Zechariah to take in all at once. Could God really do a miracle for his barren wife, Elizabeth? In his book on the stories of the birth of Jesus, Pope Benedict points out the similarities and differences between Zechariah and Mary when the angel announced the birth of their sons. Both were troubled at the message, but while Mary pondered things in her heart, Zechariah was overcome by fear and began to doubt.
The angel somewhat wisely put Zechariah in his place before God’s mighty action. He became speechless until the day the infant was dedicated to the Lord and given the name, John. When God draws us into his presence, he wants us to be still and quiet before him so we can listen to his voice as he speaks to our hearts and reveals his mind to us.
Zechariah was unable to accept the news without further proof: perhaps his prolonged sadness over being childless and the years of seemingly unanswered prayer had eroded his faith, so that, though he was devoted in his service, he could not believe God would act powerfully here and now. Has God really “remembered” him? Gabriel rebuked him for his unbelief, but the punishment of being struck dumb turned into a blessing. For over the next nine months his life was transformed: the enforced silence must have helped him, together with Elizabeth, to ponder on the angel’s message and come to understand God’s plan of salvation.
Do you believe that God will fulfill all his promises just as he said? Advent is a time to renew our hope and confidence in God’s faithfulness. In preparing the way for a Savior, we see the wondrous miracle of two barren couples who conceive and bear sons – Samson in the Old Testament and John the Baptist in the New Testament – who are called by God to bring hope and deliverance to his people Israel. Samson grows up to deliver the people from the threat of the Philistines, and John the Baptist prepares the way for the mission of Jesus.
What are we to learn from the story of Zechariah? First, the gift of silence. The voice of God speaks to each one of us, and we must be careful not to let our duties and devotions, and the busyness of this season, make us forget the reason for the season, as they say. What we celebrate is the greatest gift of all, God’s only beloved Son, who shares in our humanity.
Second, the need for patience. We are probably quite eager to receive our gifts, to go on family vacations, to attend parties, or just to receive the blessings we need. Zechariah teaches us that good things come to those who wait. He and Elizabeth waited until their twilight years before they were blessed with a son. When the angel’s message came, they waited further for the promise to come true. From these two senior figures in the Bible, we can learn how to wait.
Finally, the gift of faith. Zechariah had no way of fully understanding the angel’s message. He was asked to proceed with faith, faith that God has only good things in store for him, faith that there is a greater plan where is being asked to play a part. When we face difficult situations, we are also invited to have faith in the God who has become one of us, and journeys with us in life.
Let us pray today that these gifts of silence, patience, and faith, may grow deeper within us.