Christmas. Carols fill the airwaves. New, elaborate decorations pop up on city streets, in shopping centers and around people’s homes. At Mass we sing, “O come, O come, Emmanuel,” we put aside the Gloria, and we light Advent candles. For some of us, the whole season evokes warm memories of the past and eager anticipation of future family gatherings.
For others of us, Christmas brings some degree of anxiety. Maybe we don’t have enough money to pay our bills, let alone purchase gifts for our loved ones. Maybe some family relationships are strained or broken. Maybe we’re all alone and feel excluded from the joy of the season.
No matter how you feel, one thing is sure: you can grow closer to God this Advent. Whether or not you are able to give gifts or celebrate with family, God has gifts of hope, renewal, and joy to give you; he wants to help you celebrate with him. The first Christmas changed the lives of people like Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph, and the wise men. And your life can be changed too.
So let’s begin our own Advent journey of faith by praying through Zechariah’s story. It’s the story of someone whose life was changed by the promise of God visiting his people. It’s the story of someone whose heart and mind were opened through silent prayer and reflection.
Sorrow and Shame. In ancient Israel, children were seen as a sign of God’s blessing, much as they are today. Imagine how Zechariah and Elizabeth felt as the years passed and she remained childless. They had begged God for children, and yet their feeling of disgrace only grew (Luke 1:25). Imagine how they must have prayed: “Lord, you know that Zechariah and I are trying our best to follow your commands. Why haven’t you allowed us to have children?” Perhaps they even blamed themselves, since some thought barrenness was a sign of being cursed by God.
Because Zechariah was a priest of the Temple and Elizabeth was a descendant of Moses’ brother, Aaron, their childlessness took on an extra sting. They were upright and holy people who came from good families; why would God withhold such a blessing from them? Was he punishing them for some sin that they didn’t even know they had committed?
A Skeptical Response. Now imagine the thoughts that may well have flashed through Zechariah’s mind when an angel appeared to him in the Temple. Jewish tradition held that no one could stand in the presence of God and live—and here was one of his emissaries! So it makes sense that Zechariah was deeply “troubled” and that “fear came upon him” (Luke 1:12).
The angel told him that there was no need for fear. God had heard his prayers, and Elizabeth would finally bear a child. In truth, God had heard every time he or Elizabeth had made this prayer. The years may have felt hopeless to them, but God was biding his time. And now, the angel revealed that the time had come—and that their child would play a special role in God’s plan. He was destined “to prepare a people fit for the Lord” (Luke 1:17).
Still, Zechariah was skeptical. He was elderly, and God had ignored his prayers for so long; could he really trust that God was going to answer them now? That’s when something strange happened. The same angel who had just announced such good news now silenced this faithful old man: “You will be speechless and unable to talk until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words” (Luke 1:20).
A Season of Silence. It can seem that God—or at least the angel—was angry at Zechariah for his lack of faith. But God had much more in mind. Zechariah was a righteous and prayerful man. God couldn’t let one bad day wipe out all the years of this man’s faithfulness. He took Zechariah’s hasty response as an opportunity to bring him to an even deeper faith and trust in him. And so Zechariah began his Advent journey of faith, and he would never be the same.
What would you do if you couldn’t speak for nine whole months? Zechariah surely spent the time trying to make sense of the angel’s words. He prayed, he searched the Hebrew Scriptures, and he recalled the angel’s words to him over and over again. And what he discovered filled him with joy.
Through his time of silence, Zechariah moved from unbelieving skepticism to obedient faith. So when his miracle son was born and the time had come to name him, Zechariah showed that he had embraced God’s plan and all the promises that came with it. Instead of naming the child after himself, he obeyed the angel’s words and named him “John” (Luke 1:63). Immediately, Zechariah’s tongue was loosed, and he was free to proclaim all the praise he had stored up during his nine months of prayerful silence.
The Fruit of Silent Prayer. It’s tempting to look at Zechariah’s silencing as nothing more than a punishment for his unbelief. But as we look at his prayer of praise (Luke 1:68-79), it’s clear that God was doing something even deeper. Zechariah had an important role to play in God’s plan, and he needed to be ready for it. He needed to instill in his son a faith that could endure persecution and misunderstanding. He had to teach John to pray expectantly and to hear God’s word for his people. And he had to give him the courage he would need to proclaim that word even if it meant arrest and martyrdom.
These months were crucial. Zechariah needed this time to listen rather than talk, to pray rather than worry, and to discover how he fit into God’s great plan. Let’s look at some of the things Zechariah learned as he did just that.
• God’s visitation brings joy. Zechariah’s first words were ones of rejoicing and praise: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel” (Luke 1:68). When he had seen the angel, Zechariah’s first reaction was fear and doubt. He uttered no words of thanks to God for answering his prayer, no words of praise that God would send an angel to visit him. But now, after these months of silence, Zechariah couldn’t help but give praise to God.
• God fulfills his promises. For centuries, God’s people had prayed for deliverance from their enemies. Passage after passage in the Old Testament spoke of their longing for God to redeem his people: “Stir up your power, and come to save us” (Psalm 80:3). Now Zechariah announced to his neighbors that God’s promises were being fulfilled right before their eyes: “The Lord . . . has visited and brought redemption to his people” (Luke 1:68, emphasis added). Zechariah might not have known how God was going to do it, but he now could see that God was working to bring salvation.
• God hears every prayer. Just as Zechariah knew that God had answered his own prayer for a child, so he also knew that God had heard every prayer, every cry of the heart, from all his people throughout history. From their slavery in Egypt to the perils of their exodus and journey in the desert, from the violent opposition of the Philistines to their exile in Babylon, and from their poverty as they tried to rebuild their nation to the shame of Roman occupation, God had always heard their prayers. He would never forget his covenant (Luke 1:72). He was waiting for just the right time—and that time was now. God would indeed rescue his people, just as he had promised.
Your Advent Journey. So now you begin your Advent journey. It’s not likely that an angel will silence you from now until Christmas. But while the world around you is shouting to get your attention, you can choose to make a silent retreat with Zechariah. You can ask God to teach you as he taught this humble man.
Try to silence your life a bit (and perhaps your cell phone and e-mails). Every day, go to a quiet place and turn to God in stillness. God knows what you need; he knows every prayer you have ever prayed. Entrust these pleas to him now, and try to spend a little more time listening in your prayer. Meditate on the Advent Scriptures slowly and carefully. Then watch to see what God will do. Maybe he will change you as he did Zechariah. Maybe you’ll come to him on Christmas Day with a deeper faith that knows that God is at work today. Or maybe you’ll offer more joyful praise to God, the One who is ever faithful and hears your every prayer.
Let’s join Zechariah this Advent and let God change us.