a meditation on Luke 1:5-20 for the second Sunday of Advent
By now, you’ve probably noticed that angels in the Bible have an annoying habit of always saying the same thing. Every time an angel appears, literally out of the blue, the first thing they say is, “Don’t be afraid!”
Which is ridiculous. Because first of all, angels don’t make any noise when they sneak up behind you, so when you turn around and see one inches from your face, you’re bound to jump out of your skin. And second of all, everybody knows that in the Bible, when an angel shows up, it’s because God is about to do something that’s going to knock your life for a loop. And that is a legitimate reason to be afraid.
This is exactly the kind of angel our friend Zechariah encounters today. Not a fluffy, herald angel with flowing blonde hair and a long trumpet. This angel comes without fanfare, a no-nonsense bike-messenger of an angel who gets right to the point: Zechariah, after today, your life will never be the same.
The interesting thing is that all through these early chapters of the gospel of Luke, which is the only gospel that includes a story about the birth of Jesus—all through this story, we’re going to encounter exactly this kind of angel again and again as we spend some time with a few of the people—remarkably brave people—who play a crucial role in the arrival of the Christ child. Ordinary people who are very surprised, and sometimes very afraid, to hear from an angel that God is going to arrive in the world through their very own human lives. This happens to our friend Zechariah this morning; it happens to Joseph, and it happens to Mary: three human beings who have an unexpected visit from an angel who shows up on their doorstep–kind of like Ed McMahon, except without the giant check. Congratulations, O favored one! You have been selected from among all mortals to play a crucial role in the arrival of Emmanuel—God-with-Us!
This is not exactly the messenger we hope will show up on our doorstep. Because the message this angel brings is scary. It’s hard to believe. And it’s always a little complicated.
And yet somehow, these ordinary people—Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, Joseph, and Mary—all these people have something to teach us about the mystery that lies at the center of our faith: the mystery that we embrace together in this season of Advent. Not just the mystery of how it is that the infinite God of all creation is arriving, even now, to be right here in the body of the world with us—although that’s certainly mysterious enough. But that’s not all. These four individuals also have something to tell us about how it is that God’s presence among us, the Christ of God, arrives in and through us—in and through our own ordinary, frail, fallible, human lives. That’s the really wild proposition of Advent. That’s what the humans in this ancient story are here to tell us. Not only that God is arriving, but that God arrives in the world through us.
Which brings us back to our friend Zechariah, who is minding his own business, having an ordinary day at the office, performing his priestly duties in the Temple when an angel appears and says—what else?—“Do not be afraid!” But of course Zechariah is afraid, because he’s no dummy. He’s a priest; he’s read the scriptures. He knows what kind of crazy things happen every time an angel shows up!
But Zechariah is more than afraid. He’s perplexed, as any of us would be. Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth have been waiting and hoping their whole lives for a child. They’ve grieved over their childlessness, and they seem to have made peace with the way their lives have turned out. And now, in their very old age, this angel appears to Zechariah and tells him that he and Elizabeth are about to have a son who will teach his people how to prepare the way for the coming of the long-awaited Messiah.
Now that’s a crazy proposition. Who could blame Zechariah for being confused? Who could blame him for asking just one teensy question: “How will I know that this is so?”
And yet, the angel does seems to blame him. Because you asked a dumb question, the angel seems to say, I’m going to strike you dumb for the next nine months. On the surface, that’s what seems to happen this morning: a power-happy angel zaps a human for asking an innocent question. Most often, this is the explanation that the church has offered: Zechariah’s is struck dumb by the angel as punishment for his lack of faith.
I’ll confess to you that I have never found this explanation to be particularly convincing. God has never seemed to me like this kind of a tyrant: a God who punishes God’s beloved for a tiny bit of doubt—the kind of doubt that any reasonable human being would have.
I think there is another explanation here. Another meaning behind Zechariah’s nine-month silence.
I think it’s just possible that Zechariah needs to become silent because, as all the Christian mystics teach us, SILENCE is the doorway through which God is born in us.
Remember that there are many ways to read a Bible story. We can read it on the literal level, in which case, the moral of this story is: Ask a faithless question and you’ll get punished with silence. That’s one way to read it. But we can also read it on a spiritual level. What is this story saying about the spiritual processes at work in our human lives? In this case, Zechariah’s silence teaches us not so much about punishment, but about the way in which God is born into the world through our willingness to become silent. Silent enough for the Word of God – and this is what we call Jesus, isn’t it: Logos, the Word—silent enough for the Word of God to be heard, and born, in us.
What the ancient stories teach us, what the mystics of our tradition teach us, is that a spiritual practice of silence is crucial to the birth of God, the gestation of God, if you will, in us. For nine months—a pregnant pause, if you will—for nine pregnant months, Zechariah waits in silence. His wife, Elizabeth, physically carries the child who will pave the way for the Christ. But Zechariah also has a crucial role to play as he becomes the spacious container of holy silence that paves the way for the coming of the Christ. Without silence, our chattering mind—our rational, logical mind—will always crowd out the Word of God that is longing to be born in us.
And so, the season of Advents asks us whether we’re serious about paving the way for God. Are we serious about clearing the way, like John the Baptist, for God to arrive in the word? Take up a practice of silence, the angel says. As far as we know—as far as all the world’s spiritual traditions know—this is a required practice if the birth of the holy is to take place among us. We must take up a spiritual discipline of silence—contemplation, or meditation, we like to call it—we take up a practice of silence in order to quiet the grasping, chattering mind of the ego and allow the mind of God, the mind of Christ, to grow in us.
If we believe, with the great 13th century mystic, Meister Eckhart, that the birth of the Christ 2,000 years ago does us no good if the Christ is not born in us, now, today, then we need a spiritual practice of silence. And if Zechariah is any indication, Advent is a good time to take on that practice.
The good news is that nine months of total silence is probably more than it takes. Twenty minutes a day, though, seems to be the minimum daily requirement for the practice to take root in us. And I want to suggest that these remaining weeks of Advent are a perfect time to experiment with this practice. We have opportunities right here at First Congregational Church, and many more in the wider community, if you’d like to take up a practice of silence this season. You can join us on Sunday mornings at 9:00 in the lounge to learn about different kinds of contemplative prayer and to share your experience with friends. And, of course, you can start your own day in holy silence, maybe before the sun rises, just listening for what new thing God is offering to do in you and through you for the sake of the world.
That’s the Advent invitation. An invitation to get quiet enough that we can hear the brush of angel wings nearby; quiet enough, spacious enough to become, in our bodies, in our minds, God’s doorway into the world. Quiet enough to welcome the One who is longing, even now, to arrive among us, in holy silence, and in great joy. Amen.