I spend a fair amount of time talking in my particular calling, but I am typically reticent and prefer to listen, particularly in social settings. Yet people often expect me to speak, expect me to voice my thoughts, or offer an opinion, or even criticism. Often, however, I find myself struck speechless. I am particularly struck speechless when faced with others’ kindness and generosity. Even saying “thank you,” as appropriate and straightforward as it may be, can prove challenging. Therefore, I identify with the story of Zechariah.
The Birth Narrative from Luke includes the pregnancy of Elizabeth and her priestly husband Zechariah and the birth of their son, John the Baptist. While serving at the altar, Zechariah receives a vision in which the Angel tells him that his barren wife would become pregnant and bear a son. Both Zechariah and Elizabeth are described as “advanced in years,” and Zechariah, understandably, reacts in disbelief but is struck mute for his doubt. Granted, Zechariah, the priest, should have known the story of Abraham and Sarah; he should have known the story of Elkanah and Hannah. He should have known the miraculous birth story for those advanced in years. But when scarcity is our story, it is hard for us to see beyond our current reality. So, Zechariah is given some time to think about it. When his tongue is finally freed after the birth of his Son, he breaks into a vibrant song of thankfulness. We may be familiar with this as a canticle in the Daily Office known, fittingly enough, as the Song of Zechariah:
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
Now I have never been silent for nine months, but I have taken a few days in silent retreat, and I can admit, to break that silence in worship and praise of God was perfect. It seemed so natural.
Perhaps taking time to be silent and then to be mindful of the words that first come from our mouths when breaking silence is the lesson of Zechariah. Maybe, in reflecting Zechariah, we can choose words of praise, words of encouragement, and words of thanksgiving, instead of words of criticism, derision, or doubt.