What I learned from the Bible on Christmas (or “Why was Zechariah struck dumb?”)
This year I decided to reread the infancy narratives each day during the Octave of Christmas. I included for this purpose Mt 1:1–2:18; Lk 1:5–2:40; and (abnormally) Jn 1:1-18. (Mark, incidentally, says nothing about Our Lord’s birth.) Surprisingly, by doing this I learned something more about the spiritual difference between Zechariah (father of John the Baptist) and Mary (mother of Jesus Christ)—and about why Zechariah was punished while Mary was encouraged.
It was part of my Catholic formation that, since both Zechariah and Mary questioned Gabriel’s message from God, Zechariah must have been struck dumb because his question implied doubt, while Mary’s did not. I suppose I am late to the party on this, but I had not realized—nor had anyone explained to me—that the difference in their attitudes was not merely presumed by readers but explicit in the text. Let me explain.
Zechariah’s question to Gabriel was: “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years” (Lk 1:18). Gabriel’s reply is one of offended majesty: “I am Gabriel, who stand in the presence of God.” He fairly shouts that he was sent by God to tell him these wonderful things and yet Zechariah dared to question him! Thus the sign given to Zechariah is also a punishment; Zechariah will be mute until these things are, as they certainly will be, “fulfilled in their time.”
But Mary’s question to Gabriel was: “How can this be, since I have no husband?” This question does not bring a harsh response, but a truly remarkable explanation. Why?
The reason is actually presented clearly in the text. Mary did not doubt the veracity of Gabriel’s message, but Zechariah did. Zechariah asked, “How shall I know this?” In other words, “What sign will you give me to prove that this message is true?” Mary, on the other hand, asks “How can this be”, as if to say, “since I have no way of becoming pregnant?” An alternate reading is even more clear: “How will this be?” Mary is metaphorically rolling up her sleeves. I would paraphrase this way: “I’m in. Now how are we going to get this done?”
As it happens, Zechariah’s response is very common in the Old Testament, while Mary’s is a harbinger of the New—the response of a nature already restored by grace. Even the greatest Old Testament figures typically asked for and/or were given a sign. For Abraham, the sign that he will truly be the father of a great nation is that his wife will at last conceive a son in her old age. For Zechariah, the sign is that his power of speech is reduced, perhaps to reflect his reduced faith, though he was clearly a good man.
The most famous example of this need for a sign is the case of Gideon, recounted in the Book of Judges (6:36-40). You will recall that God promises to deliver Israel by Gideon’s hand, but Gideon asks for a sign. He lays out a fleece on the ground, saying: “If there is dew on the fleece alone, and it is dry on all the ground, then I shall know that thou wilt deliver Israel by my hand, as thou hast said.” But after the dew falls, when that proves to be the case, Gideon’s next response is to demand the opposite, just to make sure:
Let not thy anger burn against me, let me speak but this once; pray, let me make trial only this once with the fleece; pray, let it be dry only on the fleece, and on all the ground let there be dew.
Trust in God did not come so very easily to Gideon.
Interpretation in a parallel case
All this reminds me of the similar analysis that must be made in the famous case of the offerings of Cain and Abel. Consider the passage in Genesis:
Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel brought some of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. [4:2-5]
In fact, Cain killed Abel as a result. But did he have cause for such jealousy? “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen?” God asks him. “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it” (4:6-7).
Here the text is perhaps less clear, but there are still grounds for an interpretation that can clear up the mystery of the difference in God’s responses to the two brothers. For God says, “If you do well, will you not be accepted?” This implies that, if Cain was not accepted on this occasion, it is because he did not do well. Then, when we look back at the text which describes what the brothers did, we find that Abel brought the LORD “some of the firstlings of his flock”, while Cain brought “an offering of the fruit of the ground”.
It will be clear in the Law of Moses that the proper offering to God is always some of the first and some of the best (sound, fair, unblemished). We can at least guess from the text that Cain’s offering was either delayed, or grudging, or less carefully selected, or even carefully selected to reserve the first and the best for himself.
All of this is a lesson in reading Scripture carefully, repeatedly, and with the help both of those who possess the insight of holiness and of the Church herself. I hope my readers are way ahead of me when it comes to recognizing, accepting and doing the will of God. But during the Christmas season of 2017, I learned what made John the Baptist’s father less like Mary, and more like me.
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