December 30, 2018
(1 John 3:1-2, 21-24; Luke 2:41-52)
I was recently asked, why was Zechariah punished for his lack of belief in the archangel Gabriel's message (Luke 1:18–20), but Mary was not punished for hers (Luke 1:26–38)? Given the time of year, I thought it a perfect sermon topic, so here we go!
This is a great question about the events of the conception and birth of John the Baptist and of the Lord Jesus Christ. While there are definite parallels to the conception of both John by his mother Elizabeth and of Jesus by the Blessed Virgin Mary, there are some very plain differences that help us understand why Zechariah was punished by being made mute (which likely included his being made deaf – as details of the story allude to them needing to make signs to communicate with him at the time of John’s birth).
What is similar about the two events begins with the role of the archangel Gabriel, who served as God’s messenger both to Zechariah and to Mary – and both incidents are recorded in Luke 1. First, we hear of Gabriel’s appearance to Zechariah as he is serving as Temple priest who is to offer incense in worship. (Luke 1:5-25While he is carrying out of his priestly work, the angel appears and speaks to him that he and Elizabeth (who are “advanced in years” and had been barren) are to conceive and a son is to be born whom they are to name John. Zechariah, for his part, simply asks (in verse 18), “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years?” The question is even more provocative within different translations.
Let me give you some examples.
New American Standard – “Zacharias said to the angel, "How will I know this for certain? For I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years.”
New Century Version – “Zechariah said to the angel, "How can I know that what you say is true? I am an old man, and my wife is old, too."
New International Version – “Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”
New Revised Standard – “Zechariah said to the angel, "How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years."
So, we can see based on the differing styles of translating the original Greek that it can seem as though Zachariah is challenging the angel. To this the angel responds by revealing himself while saying that Zechariah, because of his unbelief, will be silent until the time of the child’s birth.”
Meanwhile, in the story of the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38), the same archangel Gabriel comes to Mary, announcing that she will conceive and bear a son, naming him Jesus. Like Zechariah, Mary asks the angel “how” will this be. Yet, rather than being told of unbelief, the angel proceeds to describe the great gift and mystery that she, a virgin, will conceive by “the Holy Spirit.” She was gifted with holiness, because we know that God could not enter a tainted womb. She would be forever remembered as the mother of Christ.
While the similarities of the two stories are quite clear, there is a very real difference – especially when these two passages are read in the context of the whole of the Scriptures. For though it would seem that Zechariah and Mary both asked legitimate questions of the angel, it is noteworthy that Zechariah’s questioning is in doubt of God’s plan – a plan that had been fulfilled in others in the days of old. Zacharias is essentially asking the angel, "How do I know I can trust you? Prove it." Furthermore, Zacharias's only basis of doubt was his and his wife's old age. This was a miracle for which Biblical precedent had already been set (Abraham, Genesis 18). For the promise of God spoken by Gabriel was like that of Abraham and Sarah (who conceived Isaac when she was 90 years old). Accordingly, what was spoken to Zechariah was not without precedent, and therefore worthy of belief without question.
Mary is not asking "How will I know" (i.e., she's not asking whether she can trust God's word) - she is asking how it can be, in a spirit of amazement and wonder, rather than a spirit of doubt. Some say that Mary may have expressed doubt by asking how this would be initially, but once she was given an answer to her question of how it could be, she did believe.
Additionally, for Mary’s question, there was no such precedent. Though the Lord had spoken to Ahaz that a virgin conceiving a son was to be a sign (Isaiah 7:14), never had a woman conceived without “knowing” a man – and thus her question of “how will this be” is not asked in doubting God, but simply a confusion over how she, a virgin, would be with child. Furthermore, what the angel describes to Mary as the way of this conception will require its own act of faith – that she would conceive not by a man, but by the Holy Spirit. In this moment, Mary expresses without hesitation her true and sincere trust in God by her response to this revelation, saying “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (verse 39).
Thus, the difference is quite simple: what was revealed to Zechariah had happened before and was therefore worthy of belief without question (especially from a Temple priest), whereas what was revealed to Mary was a new and unique act of God that was singularly given to her – and thus her question was not a doubt, but an opportunity for her (and us) to know the power of God so as to say “yes, let it be done.”
Also, note that in Luke 1:38, we read:
And Mary said, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” And the angel departed from her.
It is interesting that Zachariah is almost seen challenging God to give him a sign, and so the fact that he was stuck dumb could very well be also seen as God complying with that request. It might serve as a good lesson to take care what we ask for.
Zachariah wanted God to give him a sign, and so the fact that he was stuck dumb could very well be also seen as God complying with that request. It is important to remember that Zachariah did get what he asked for, Gabriel clearly told Zachariah, "your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son..." How long had it been since that prayer had been made? How long had it been since Elizabeth and Zechariah had resigned themselves to the fact that despite their petitions to God, they would not have a child?
It should be noted that the entire Jewish race had occasions of miraculous birth of men and women who were "past the age of childbearing". Additionally, women who were barren became mothers through the provision of God--not only Sarah, but Rebekah and Rachel as well.
Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, "Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?" (Genesis 17:17)
And Isaac prayed to the LORD for his wife, because she was barren. And the LORD granted his prayer, and Rebekah his wife conceived. (Genesis 25:21)
When the LORD saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren. (Genesis 29:31)
Additionally, Zechariah had apparently prayed specifically that God would allow he and his wife to have children.
But the angel said to him, "Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.” (Luke 1:13)
So, Zechariah's prayer, like Abraham's, Isaac's, Rachel's, Hannah's and others, was heard. The angel was merely announcing to Zechariah that his prayer would be answered. So, he actually doubted God's proclaimed provision and answer to his prayer.
Mary, however, had probably never ever prayed that she would have a miraculous child out of wedlock, and a virgin had never given birth before, so her questioning is a quite a bit more understandable than that of Zechariah.
The fact that Zechariah had a negative consequence to his question while Mary did not tells us more about God than it does about the two individuals. For God does not judge whether a work or a question is a good work or a sin on the basis of the outward work or obvious question. Rather God is clear that He judges the heart as to the motivation. The conclusion is clear that since Zechariah received a negative consequence to his question it was because doubt and unbelief motivated his question. So also, since Mary received no negative consequence to her question was NOT motivated by doubt and unbelief but simply an inquiry into how God intended to fulfill His promise.
Keep in mind that Zechariah was much older than Mary and was also a priest performing his priestly duties in the sanctuary when the angel appeared. As said before, he was receiving a specific and very detailed answer to his own prayer and yet failed to recognize this! By contrast his unborn son leaps in the womb when Mary enters their home and greets Elizabeth. The theme of recognition is a fascinating one.
Zechariah was a priest. It was customary in that time for only the priest to enter into the temple of God and burn incense (pray to God), and then get a word from God to share with the people who were waiting on the outside to hear a word from God.
Therefore, for a priest not to believe a word from God (doubt, question) was a major occurrence. Lives depended on this word. Priests were seen as the intercessor between man and God before Jesus came. Zechariah was made silent because of his position; while being in that position he doubted.
I think maybe the assumption that Zachariah was being punished isn't quite right. Maybe it was a gift, the gift of silence, within which he was able to absorb the revelation he had received - itself a great grace. True, his response can be interpreted as a bit skeptical, but it appears to be more superficial - in some sense he didn't know what he was saying. So he needed some time to reflect, and an enforced silence freed him from his verbal duties as a priest. Mary, on the other hand, seems like she was already in a state of deep contemplation, and her response came from that kind of frame of mind. She didn't need to be "put on silence" because she was already operating out of a deep interior silence.
If you listen to the responses of Zachariah and Mary to the Angel Gabriel, it should be obvious that Zachariah’s response was one of doubt to something being told to him, a Scripture Scholar. He had asked for a child and he, knowing God as a priest, should have known from past Scriptural history that God is never limited by anything except the person causing the limitation. He knew that he was being visited by a messenger (angel) of God to relate to him God's love for him and Elizabeth by making the impossible happen, the birth of a Great Person. Yet, he doubted.
On the other hand Mary never asked for anything – at least not anything that was relayed to us in Scriptures. When the angel Gabriel appeared to her telling her that a child would be born to her and this child would be the Son of God, her inquiry was a very natural one, "I am a virgin; I know not man." So, essentially she asks to explain this to her. When the angel told her that the Spirit of God would over shadow her and that nothing was impossible to God, her immediate response was out of the love for God in her heart, "Let it be done unto me according to God's word."
Keep in mind that Mary was a child between 13-16 years of age, not a priest, but a simple maiden who loved God dearly. What followed was Jesus, God with us! As a result of her "fiat" (her acceptance was made freely) she made it possible for God to have his divine Son become incarnate and be born bringing into the world his promised redemption to Abraham and the prophets that followed throughout salvation history.
Although, there are additional theological considerations in regard to Zachariah and Mary’s questions and the Gabriel’s response to each, these are the more common Church’s explanation.
Let us pray.
In today’s gospel, we read how the 12-year old Jesus was not lost but in the temple about His Father’s business. We pray that we too, like Jesus, give witness in our lives to promoting the Word of God. We pray to the Lord.
For the Church in the world, and all her children of God. We pray to the Lord.
That the love, holiness and devotion of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph may be our source of inspiration and strength in our families, especially during our challenges and sufferings. We pray to the Lord.
For broken families, that they may receive the care and compassion they need. We pray to the Lord.
That every person feels cared for and loved, as a child of God. We pray to the Lord.
For each of us here: that God will give us strength and courage to grow spiritually and personally through the challenges and excitements of the new year that await us. We pray to the Lord.
For those on our parish prayer list: that they may be brought to health and wholeness through the mercy of Christ. We pray to the Lord.
For our family members who have died: that they may enjoy eternal rest in God’s heavenly Kingdom. We pray to the Lord.
We bow our heads and remember in silence our own personal intentions and the intentions of those who have asked for our prayers (pause). We pray to the Lord.
Loving Father, we thank you for the gift of life and family. Help us, Lord, we pray, to nurture and persevere in the ties of charity that unite us. God our creator, your strength sustains your people all their days, hear our prayers and stay with us throughout the New Year. Gracious God, you bless your people with peace and justice: accept our prayers and give us your help, Through Christ, our Lord, Amen.
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, CA