The story of Elizabeth and Zechariah is one of my favorites in the whole unfolding saga of the Christmas story. Elizabeth is an elderly woman of faith who was a direct descendent of Aaron, Moses’ brother. She had lived as righteously as she could—keeping the law and caring for family and neighbors; putting God first in her daily life and worship. In our Friends’ tradition, we might think of Elizabeth as a “weighty Friend,” someone who had lived in the Light of God for a long time and understood both the working of Spirit in her own life and the leading of Spirit in community.
But no matter how righteously she lived, Elizabeth had never been granted the one thing she’d prayed and asked for for decades; she had never been able to have a child. In that time, it was considered a sign of God’s blessing and favor when a couple had children—the more, the better. And so in spite of her great faith and devout actions, Elizabeth likely felt some measure of disgrace or embarrassment that she’d never had a child. For some reason—still unknown to her and her husband Zechariah—God seemed to be withholding that blessing from them. Otherwise, they likely thought, their prayers would have been answered.
Zechariah had also lived his life according to his faith, in the service of God and God’s people. He was a priest in the temple, fulfilling his duties according to the law and the standards King David had established long before. In our Old Testament reading we heard about David’s thoughts on the generous purpose of God—that everything we have comes from God for God’s good purpose, and that God “tests the heart and (is) pleased with integrity.” David prays at the end of this passage, “I have seen with joy how willingly your people…have given to you. Lord, the God of our fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, keep these desires and thoughts in the hearts of your people forever, and keep their hearts loyal to you.”
During this week, as the story unfolds, Zechariah’s family was the one scheduled to complete the ritual tasks at the temple, and the priests in his family line cast lots to determine which one of them would serve that day. Casting lots was common in those days; it was done with sticks or stones; and it was used by the people as a way to understand what God wanted them to do in a particular situation. The action might be similar to us today flipping a coin, or drawing straws, or perhaps choosing names from a hat—provided that we pray first and ask God what the outcome should be.
The lot showed that God wanted Zechariah to perform the priestly duties that day, and he went into the altar at the end of the Holy compartment of the tabernacle, next to the curtain that separated it from the Most Holy area. There he made an offering to God on behalf of the people, using the sacred incense that they burned each morning and night. As usual, people gathered outside to pray as the incense was being offered. Zechariah had probably done this same task dozens of times before. Chances are that he wasn’t expecting anything unusual on this particular day.
Think about what Zechariah might have been feeling just then, doing this time-honored task for God. He was probably one of the older priests by now and there were no doubt new, younger priests coming up, growing in experience and wisdom. With all his experience, Zechariah was probably pretty comfortable performing the familiar rituals for God, and he may not have wanted much more than that. If he’d ever had aspirations that God would make him a great prophet, he’d probably let go of those ambitious dreams by now. That happens naturally as we age. Let the younger generation dream those dreams and make that effort. Our joys are quieter, closer, more inward now. By this time in his life, Zechariah probably felt content with his role, his service, and his life overall.
But as he performed the ritual task, burning the sacred incense and praying as the spirals of smoke rose into the air, suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared on the right side of the altar. It’s hard to get our minds around what a shock that must have been—in an ordinary, normal day, doing a task we’ve done a dozen times before, suddenly (that word suddenly does a lot of work here) an angel appears.
An angel! What do you think he looked like? How big was he? Did he tower above Zechariah, filling up the space? Did his clothing gleam with an otherworldly light? The story says Zechariah was gripped with fear—and for good reason, we would be too–and so the angel ‘s first words to him were ones of reassurance. “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard.” Then angel shares God’s plan: that he and Elizabeth will have a son and name him John, and he will be a “joy and delight” and will cause many people to rejoice because he will be “great in the sight of the Lord.” The angel gives Zechariah instructions for how his son should be raised and says the baby “will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born.” And he even tells Zechariah the exalted purpose of his son’s life: to “go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
What amazing words those must have been for Zechariah to hear, this man who had lived by the law and the prophets and carried out his priestly duties every day of his adult life. “In the spirit and power of Elijah” must have seemed to Zechariah like the highest vocation possible on earth. But instead of jumping for joy or thanking and praising God in response, Zechariah is uncertain and hesitant. “How can I be sure of this?” he asked. “I’m old, remember. And so is my wife.”
We can understand Zechariah’s hesitation. If we were visited by an angel in this way, we might wonder whether we were sleeping—or sane. It’s almost too much to take in, at least with our limited rational minds. Had Zechariah been listening with his heart in that moment instead of his head, he likely would have given a different answer. But that natural response was a decisive moment for Zechariah, showing that for at least in that instant, his doubt was greater than his faith. Faced with an angel and the promise that his long and earnest prayer was being answered, Zechariah instead believed more strongly in the limits of his age than he did in God’s ability to redeem and refresh and renew anyone, anything, anytime.
Gabriel sounds a bit irritated when he answers Zechariah. “Let me tell you something about me,” he says. “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and tell you this good news.” And then he tells Zechariah that because he didn’t believe the angel’s words, “which will come true at their appointed time,” he won’t be able to speak until the day that John is born. No second chances here for Zechariah—when the angel saw his doubting mind was in control, he needed to ensure that God’s plan would unfold in the proper way, and that meant silencing for a time this faithful father-to-be.
When Zechariah leaves the temple, he can’t tell those gathered what happened. The people see his face and his gestures and understand he’d seen some sort of a vision, but he could tell them no more than that. He couldn’t even tell Elizabeth the wonderful news that God had answered their prayers after all these years. And later, when Elizabeth realizes she is pregnant, she doesn’t doubt or question like Zechariah did—her heart responds instead of her head, and she says simply, “The Lord has done this for me—he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.”
The older I get, the more I appreciate and enjoy the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah because I too need to be reminded that God is not bound by any limits of time and space we might believe in. We—especially as we get older—can inadvertently begin to accept ideas that we are limited by what our bodies can do, or what our checkbooks can afford, or what is fitting for our age.
We, like Elizabeth and Zechariah, might think we’re too old to be part of God’s next chapter and believe it’s unlikely that God will choose us for some unfolding purpose, but here’s the thing: This story tells us that just the opposite is true. It says, “Keep your heart open, your spirit listening, and be ready for anything.” Because wherever God finds faithful, willing hearts, we can be sure God already has a part for them to play in the ongoing work of much-needed love in this world. As David said, all we have is God’s and all we do is part of God’s good purpose. That means that if we’re part of God’s plan, no human limitation—age or otherwise—can stop the ocean of light George Fox saw so long ago from flowing over the ocean of darkness. Anything is possible—in our lives or anyone else’s—if God is unfolding the plan. All we need to be is willing and believe in our hearts when we hear the angel call.
So perhaps this year as we think about the things we’ll give to others—gifts of time, gifts of attention, gifts of care, in addition to presents in bags and boxes—we can spend a little time considering what God has given us to share. What is in our heart just now that might bless another? What kindness, what empathy, what generous measure might bring a smile to a soul who needs it? Tender touches of love—the tinier and more immediate, the better—are the real gifts of light, this season and anytime. It makes me think of this lovely saying by Isaac Penington:
“Our life is love, and peace, and tenderness; and bearing one with another, and forgiving one another, and not laying accusations one against another; but praying one for another, and helping one another up with a tender hand.”
Perhaps the best thing we can give to others this Christmas isn’t wrapped up in colorful paper or tied with a fancy bow. Maybe it’s the inward vision we hold of the Christ child born in them, capable of goodness, openness, and love; and free to change and forgive and try again. Our gift to them could be releasing them from these human limitations we so quickly apply, and believing instead that Christ can be born right into the dark night of their struggle and confusion, directly into their irritation and upset; that Christ’s light can shine away the problems that seem insurmountable at the moment. We can believe for them–until they can believe it themselves—that Christ is already present with them and they can encounter him in their best, newborn ideas; in the hope they begin to feel; in the fresh breeze of renewal that can show a way forward much different from the past.
In keeping with that idea, I close with one of my favorite Christmas poems, written by Quaker John Greenleaf Whittier. It’s called The Mystic’s Christmas.
"All hail!" the bells of Christmas rang,
"All hail!" the monks at Christmas sang,
The merry monks who kept with cheer
The gladdest day of all their year.
But still apart, unmoved thereat,
A pious elder brother sat
Silent, in his accustomed place,
With God's sweet peace upon his face.
"Why sitt'st thou thus?" his brethren cried,
"It is the blessed Christmas-tide;
The Christmas lights are all aglow,
The sacred lilies bud and blow.
"Above our heads the joy-bells ring,
Without the happy children sing,
And all God's creatures hail the morn
On which the holy Christ was born.
"Rejoice with us; no more rebuke
Our gladness with thy quiet look."
The gray [one] answered, "Keep, I pray,
Even as ye list, the Lord's birthday.
"Let heathen Yule fires flicker red
Where thronged refectory feasts are spread;
With mystery-play and masque and mime
And wait-songs speed the holy time!
"The blindest faith may haply save;
The Lord accepts the things we have;
And reverence, howsoe'er it strays,
May find at last the shining ways.
"They needs must grope who cannot see,
The blade before the ear must be;
As ye are feeling I have felt,
And where ye dwell I too have dwelt.
"But now, beyond the things of sense,
Beyond occasions and events,
I know, through God's exceeding grace,
Release from form and time and space.
"I listen, from no mortal tongue,
To hear the song the angels sung;
And wait within myself to know
The Christmas lilies bud and blow.
"The outward symbols disappear
From him whose inward sight is clear;
And small must be the choice of days
To him who fills them all with praise!
"Keep while you need it, brothers mine,
With honest seal your Christmas sign,
But judge not him who every morn
Feels in his heart … Lord Christ born!"