(The Annunciation to Zechariah, Russian Icon)
In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years. Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Let's move on to the second meditation of my Advent Quiet Morning; the Annunciation to Zechariah and the hoopla surrounding it.
Once again, we shown a story of "barren-ness," but this one seems a little different. We are told an interesting juxtaposition. Zechariah and Elizabeth are childless and getting on in years, but we are also told they are "righteous people." That's sort of an oxymoron in the beliefs of that time. Bearing children was the gold standard of proof of God's blessing to people of that day. Heirs allowed you to continue on in the family business, and insured you would be cared for should you make it to old age. But notice Luke doesn't imply that the birth of John "made" him righteous later. He pretty much says at the outset that Zechariah and Elizabeth are ALREADY righteous at the onset of this story.
But what really jumped out at me was a line that really was one of the more humdrum lines in the passage: "Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside." It was the business of Zechariah being in there by himself just before this angel appeared. He would have no witnesses for this visitation.
It got me to thinking about the things in my own life that we all sort of take for granted will happen, but didn't. We all have those things in one way or another. It made me realize that in order to be our most righteous selves, sometimes we are "set apart." Sometimes we feel very alone in this "set apart-ness" and tend to think of it as a character flaw instead of a blessing. Something is "wrong" with us because we don't seem to be what everyone around us is, or have what others have, whether that "what others have" are material possessions, apparently stable family lives, successful rewarding careers, spouses, children, time, health...etc., etc., etc.
We discover these "set apart" feelings at various ages, and they evolve. We tend to feel shame over them rather than see them as opportunities to draw closer to God and the unique relationship we can have with him. We tend to use the things in which we feel set apart to strain our relationships instead of build better ones.
I wonder how many times Zechariah thought to himself, "What did I do wrong, that Elizabeth and I have never had children? What do people think? Does it make me less trustworthy as a priest? Do they think I have some skeleton in the closet?" Did he sometimes engage in a distorted view of the world, trying harder to "do a good job," as if that somehow would compensate for the loss he felt having no heirs? Did he feel tired and resigned to some things, and have a sense of hopelessness about what his future held--that he simply endured "his lot in life?"
But here's the other half of this humdrum passage: While he was in there, alone with this angel, the people were all outside praying. The people didn't feel like they had to be inside to pray. We don't know what they were praying about. We don't know what was happening in their lives. But they did not feel a need to enter into this "set apart" space to pray and worship God. It was okay to leave Zechariah alone. If anything, the knowledge that he was in there, allegedly alone, purifying the temple with incense, might have made the people actually feel connected to Zechariah in his "set apart-ness." His being set apart made them feel that he was helping provide for their prayer and worship life.
I thought back to 2007, when I refinished the pews in Trinity-Kirksville. I spent a lot of time in there alone. I found myself with a foot in two places. I mostly wanted to be left alone and sort of found it annoying when they bothered me, at the time I was working. Sometimes I would have welcomed a conversation as a break, but mostly if anyone did stop by, it always felt a little "inopportune." I felt like I had to push being polite.
But what I began to enjoy is what started to happen without saying. I noticed when the regulars came to "their" pew for the first time after it was refinished. They looked happier. They sang with more gusto. They worshiped differently. I liked that feeling of having silently influenced their worship life. That made me incredibly happy.
Yet, when people told me admiring things about the work, I became very embarrassed and almost curt and cut them off. I let my own fear of them thinking I was sucking up to them, that they needed to "pay me back somehow," that I was doing it for the attention, cloud the joy of simply saying "Thank you," and being happy they were happy. I am now ashamed that I responded to their desire to connect to my set apart-ness by discounting their feelings. I realize that in an odd way, I was the one setting myself apart--that I did not allow myself to share their joy.
I felt a little barren about that.
But time has a funny way of fixing things.
We now have some new people at our church. They, for the most part, don't know or care I refinished the pews. Oh, they might hear about it later, but that's been three and a half years now, and it's all gone into "ancient history." It sort of got brought back up in our parish history project during our interim, but there were so many things that were in that, it was just "one more." But these new people seem fairly joyful about being in our parish, for many reasons. What I had originally set out for the pews, finally happened. They are just part of the ambiance of the physical space of Trinity-Kirksville, as I originally intended. I realize now it was sort of unreasonable at the time I was actually doing the work, to NOT expect "people to be outside, praying, as I prepared the sanctuary"--just as Zechariah was inside, spreading the smell of incense.
But what this passage made me realize is we are ALL "set apart"--each in our own way, as one of the "priesthood of believers." Set apart but not alone--others are outside praying, and their prayers are always, at least, indirectly on our behalf, even if they are not "about us." Set apart but visited by angels, and not always when we want to be visited by angels. Feeling "set apart" is not proof of neither sin nor righteousness--it is an invitation to be an agent of God's love in a unique way. Do we accept the invitation, or do we set ourselves further apart?
(The Annunciation to Zechariah, Russian Icon)