Second Sunday of Advent: “Dreams, Signs and Wonders”

Luke 1:5-25

For four years while Jerome was getting his Ph.D., we lived on the grounds of and worked at Piedmont Community Church. One of our co-workers had these things she’d say over and over again — many of us do — and one of them was this thing she’d always say whenever we were talking about solid, dependable, ordinary folks who were respected by others. She’d say, “They’re good people. Good people.” You might be charismatic or rich or incredibly talented. You might be a CEO (there were plenty of them in Piedmont) or a high-powered attorney in San Francisco, but only a certain type of person earned the title “good people” from my co-worker. It was her highest praise.

Zechariah and Elizabeth are “good people.” The author of Luke goes out of his way to establish their “good people” cred. They “lived blamelessly,” says the text, which meant they kept all 613 mitzvoth or commandments of the Jewish faith. What’s more, Zechariah is a priest and Elizabeth is a descendent of priests. Elizabeth shares the same name as that of the wife of Aaron, Israel’s first priest. This might all sound rather “posh,” as the Brits would say, but it wasn’t. There were supposedly 18,000 priests in Israel at this time, divided up in 24 different sections. There were so many priests that each priest was only on “active duty” two separate weeks a year at the Temple in Jerusalem. These priests were like reserve foot soldiers — set aside for intermittent service, respected but not particularly distinguished.

One very painful thing did set Zechariah and Elizabeth apart, however: They did not have a child and now they were of an age — perhaps in their 50s or 60s — when the dream of children had long since passed. Despite their “good people” status, Zechariah and Elizabeth — and especially she — would have born the weight of social censure for not having children. If you were barren, it was seen as a sign that you had sinned against God in some way. It was, as Elizabeth says, a “disgrace.”

So, Zechariah is at the Temple in Jerusalem, doing his ordinary “good person” priest thing when something out of the ordinary happens to him. He is chosen by lot to make the incense offering, an offering which happened every morning and evening at the Temple. A priest could easily go his whole life without being chosen to make this offering. Remember — there are hundreds of them there, and they only do this twice a year. So to have your name drawn to make this offering was like the World Series of being a priest. Because it was such a great privilege, you could only perform it once in your life. (Details about this are from here.)

Doing so required Zechariah to go into the most sacred part of the Temple, a room he would never have entered otherwise. Normally, he would done his priestly duty in one of the outer courts, but for the incense offering, he would have to go into a room known as the sanctuary, or the holy place. The holy place had two separate rooms — the one that contained the incense altar and then, behind two veils, the Holy of Holies.  I think we probably can’t imagine today the awe and holiness surrounding this place. It would have been the high point of Zechariah’s life to enter the holy place and also, perhaps, one of the most terrifying things he had ever done. Priests would normally not stay long in the holy place, for fear of unintentionally making a trivial mistake that was blasphemous, a mistake for which they might be struck dead. In fact, priests entering the holy place would put bells on the hem of their robe so that if they were suddenly struck down, their fellow priests outside would eventually figure out this had happened and drag their body out…. because, you know, no more bells.  Did you ever think of how closely the word sacred is to the word scared? 

So, Zechariah enters the holy place, when something even more out of the ordinary happens — an angel appears to him. I know many of you don’t believe in angels. I have known a handful of people — all of them sane, and all of whom I trust — who have had encounters with beings they can only describe as angels, and these encounters sound very much like the ones people have with angels in the Bible. They are terrifying. The angelic presence is so big, so powerful, so radiant, that you feel all of your smallness and vulnerability. It’s no wonder that angels in scripture always begin their message by saying, “Fear not.” Gabriel tells Zechariah that his prayers have been answered — he and his wife will bear a son and not just any son, but a son who will prepare the way for the long-awaited Messiah. There could be no greater privilege for a Jew at that time, than to have such a son.  Needless to say, Zechariah has a hard time taking this all in. He asks, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” Because Zechariah didn’t believe him, Gabriel says he will be mute until the day his son is born.

Now, preachers often tell this Bible story as a moralistic tale with one message: Don’t doubt God and “his” messengers. God is out to do great things, so get with the program right away if God tells you that something wonderful is going to happen; otherwise you’ll be punished. This moral, however, doesn’t make make sense to me. Just one chapter later, they same angel visits Mary and also tells her something amazing is going to happen— she’s going to give birth to the Messiah — and she greets this news very similarly to Zechariah. She says, “How can this be, since I have never been with a man?” How is that any different than Zechariah saying, “how will I know that this is so… cause I’m old?” But Mary doesn’t get struck mute. Instead, Gabriel rather patiently explains to her how the whole conception business is going to go down. Why is Zechariah punished, condemned to silence for nine months while he waits for his son is born? 

Unless he wasn’t condemned to silence and unless it wasn’t actually a punishment. Years ago, I heard of a New Agey teacher who observed a day of silence every week. I had mixed feelings about him and his teachings, but I was intrigued by this discipline and found myself wishing I had a life where I could do such a thing. Because I love silence. I used to regularly go on silent retreats, and our annual silent retreat in February is perhaps my favorite weekend of the year.   The writer Pico Iyer describes the power of silence better than I ever could in a recent “On Being” podcast. He is talking about going to his first ever silent retreat, at the New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, where I’ve also been many times (you can hear the podcast here):

“I got in my car, and I drove north along the coast following the sea. The road got narrower and narrower, and then I came to an even narrower, barely paved road that snaked up for two miles to the top of a mountain. I got out of my car at this monastery, and the air was pulsing. It was very silent, but really the silence wasn’t the absence of noise. It was almost the presence of these transparent walls that I think the monks had worked very, very hard to make available to us in the world. I stepped into the little room where I was going to stay, and it was simple. There was a bed and a long desk, and above the desk a long picture window, and outside it a walled garden with a chair, and beyond that just this great blue expanse of the Pacific Ocean. Somehow, almost immediately, it was as if a huge heaviness fell away from me, and the lens cap came off my eyes. Suddenly, I was seeing everything with great immediacy, and it was almost as if little Pico had disappeared, and the whole world had come in to me instead. I remember a blue jay suddenly alighted on the fence outside my window, and I watched it, rapt, as if it was the most miraculous thing that had happened. Then bells began ringing above, and it felt like they were ringing inside me. Then when darkness fell, I just walked along the monastery road under the stars, watching the taillights of cars disappear around the headlands to the south. And really, almost instantaneously, I felt I’ve stepped into a richer, deeper life, a real life that I had half-forgotten had existed.”

Like Iyar, I have found that when I become silent, I become present — present to the world, present to the radiance of the ordinary. A blue jay, the stars, bells… they become wonderful, as in: full of wonder. The heaviness falls away, the lens cap comes off my eyes, and I enter into that richer, deeper life, that real-er life, that I had forgot had existed. Like Zechariah, I enter into the holy place and see wonders.

I realize silent retreats may not do this for all of us. But I suspect that each of us has some way of entering into this richer, real-er life. I’m also aware that retreats are special events, where we release ourselves from all the duties and responsibilities of being a “good person.” But I think it is possible to grab moments of presence, to enter into the holy place, even in the midst of our dutiful, responsible “good people” lives. I have lately been trying to practice the discipline of not checking my phone when I have downtime. When I am waiting in line at the grocery store, I just wait, and I try to be present to what is going on around me. What would it look like in that moment if “little Sheri” disappeared and the world came in? Maybe I’d notice the tiredness around the mother’s eyes as she nonetheless demonstrated exquisite patience with her cranky three-year-old.  Maybe I’d actually see the homeless encampment that appears occasionally at the edges of the store parking lot, along the railroad tracks, before (I suspect) it gets taken down again. When we are present, the real-er life we encounter will not always be beautiful; it may also be more painful, as the real suffering of real people becomes more real to us.

Advent invites us to go silent and become present. To get out of our heads and out of our abstractions and out of the incessant internal conversations we are always having and notice the sprouting leaves of the fig tree, the blue jays, the reality of the people around us. Because the God who shows up in a teenager’s womb might show up anywhere. So pay attention. You don’t know when you’ll find yourself unexpectedly in the holy place. 

Last week, we talked about how we must learn to wait with a sense of promise, with the faith that what we are waiting for has already begun, that something is growing on the ground on which we are already standing. But to wait with a sense of promise we must also be present, as Henri Nouwen says, “in the conviction that something is happening where you are… A waiting person is someone who is present to the moment, who believes that this moment is the moment.” (From Waiting for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas)

In this way, he says, a person waiting with presence is also a patient person. Patience, is the willingness to stay where we are — not fly away in our mind or body to somewhere else — and to live the situation out to the full in the belief that something hidden there will manifest itself to us. Impatient people are always expecting the real thing to happen somewhere else and therefore want to go elsewhere.” It’s the ultimate FOMO (Fear of Missing Out).  “But patient people dare to stay where they are… to live actively in the present and wait there. Zechariah, Elizabeth and Mary were very present to the moment. That is why they could hear the angel,” he says.

So, maybe Zechariah’s silence wasn’t a punishment. Maybe the angel knew that Zechariah needed to wait through nine whole months of silence so he could be attentive to the wonder-ful thing that God was doing through him and his wife, Elizabeth. Maybe the angel knew that this busy, responsible good person needed to be struck mute so that he could become present to the holy place that is always underneath his feet.