The Christmas story is dominated by the birth of Jesus – virgins and shepherds and wise men and angels. With all this going on it’s easy to forget the other miraculous birth six months earlier. John the Baptist is a major figure early in the New Testament, but it’s also worth remembering his parents, whose story is told in Luke 1. In it we see two potential responses to God’s work in the world.
Zechariah is a priest ministering in the holiest part of the Temple when he’s confronted by an angel – even though he and his wife are elderly, even though they’ve spent decades dealing with childlessness, they’re now going to have a son who will act as the forerunner of the Messiah. Unfortunately Zechariah doesn’t buy this news and ends up being rendered mute for nine months.
Ironic he’s a priest, isn’t it?
Here’s one of the spiritual leaders of Israel. Here’s one of the few people chosen to minister before God in the most sacred part of the Temple. When he’s in there a little longer than was expected, a nervous ripple must have gone through his colleagues – after all, the priests were dealing with sheer, terrifying holiness, and so maybe a part of them was expecting a rerun of Raiders of the Lost Ark with fewer Nazis. Of everyone involved in the miraculous births of that first Christmas, you’d think Zechariah would be first in line to receive the blessings. Not so.
I guess he’s an early example of the tension between Jesus and the religious authorities, where the Messiah ends up being followed by tax collectors and prostitutes while priests and Pharisees completely miss the point. Here’s a man who should be leading Israel, but instead his disbelief silences him until he gets with the programme. I guess Luke’s first few paragraphs hint at a conflict that runs throughout the Gospels.
But I can’t be too hard on Zechariah. Yes, he’s a man who has been praying for years that God would give him a son, and yet when it actually happens he’s full of doubt and disbelief. Easy as it would be to condemn him, I share his attitude at times – far too many times. Praying with words is easy, but genuinely believing there’ll be a response? That can be tougher. Believing in God is one thing, but it’s all too easy to think that the transcendent happens to other people.
But while that attitude is more common than I’d like to admit, someone else in this story gives us a better example. It’s interesting that the women come out of all this better than the men. Mary and Elizabeth may have been a little overwhelmed by events but they went along with what God was doing. Joseph needed a push in the right direction, but ultimately he did the right thing; Zechariah, on the other hand, is the reluctant believer, the one who, even when confronted with an angel, was dismissive of the idea that a man his age could become a father.
Elizabeth is part of a long line of miraculous mothers: the aforementioned Sarah, Hannah, Samson’s mom… It’s important that she’s in this continuity because her son is a bridge between the Testaments, the last of the prophets and the herald of the Messiah – her baby’s going to be a big deal (when Zechariah finally gets his voice back, his song makes this clear). And yet here’s the apparent difference between her and her husband – Zechariah effectively snorts, arrogant enough to question the angel’s message; Elizabeth, on the other hand, responds with humility. She’s a relative of Mary, and when they end up staying together, there’s a powerful recognition of a shared destiny: “But why am I so favoured, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”
She’s a woman whose childlessness has rendered her an outsider; maybe Zechariah’s position of authority promoted a little arrogance? He’s one of the ultimate insiders, and yet the people who recognise what God’s doing here are the outsiders and the marginalised.
Because that’s worth noting – Elizabeth, whose years of childlessness would have been a cause for pity and gossip, whose decades of heartache and disappointment, of possible anger at herself and her husband, nevertheless find her in a place where she’s overjoyed at what God is doing. After all, that’s going to bring her happiness and fulfilment; others in the story, like King Herod, see the children born here as nothing but a threat.
And that’s one of the key messages of Christmas – one of grace, one in which God becomes human and hangs out with the dispossessed and disregarded. And it’s not that he’s rejecting the religious and social elite, it’s that they’re rejecting him. The point has comprehensively been missed. That could be an epitaph for the festive season, but also for faith as a whole – sometimes we can get so bound up in our dogma and ideology that we miss out on something God’s doing, something that those we’ve marginalised can see way before we do.
This Christmas, let’s pray that our religion doesn’t blind us to the reality of Jesus.