(Zechariah and Gabriel, Julius Schnorr von Carrolsfeld)
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.” Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.” Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. When his time of service was ended, he went to his home. After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”
Another thing I thought about in the mediation on Zechariah during Advent Quiet Morning was all the changes Zechariah had to make when he got struck dumb. Remember, at the time this happened, Zechariah had no clue how long this being struck dumb was going to last. After all, "until the day these things occur," is kinda vague. It wasn't like he could mark the day it would be over on the calendar. What things? Things beyond the birth of this child? It definitely sounded like some time "beyond nine months."
Now, as I mentioned in this post about a year ago, I don't think this action by Gabriel was punitive. I think it was more like "Ok, you want proof? You want a sign? Here's one you definitely won't forget."
I thought about the things he couldn't do, the things where he tried to communicate but he couldn't. It had to be frustrating. We see in the passage that it was difficult for him to communicate with the people outside when he met them.
He had another real problem--he was not going to be able to carry out anything in the temple that involved preaching or reading the Torah aloud. He wasn't going to be able to totally pull his weight insofar as the other priests were concerned. He was going to have to depend on them (and their good graces) to carry on "business as usual" in the temple--at least insofar as the things that did not require speaking. It meant he would have to take on more of a "silent servant" role at the altar. For someone used to doing the "proclaiming" in the temple, this had to be a real take-down-a-notch experience for him.
This also doesn't get any better when he gets home. We see in the passage Elizabeth secluded herself for five months. So it's not like he is going to have her around and available to translate for him or be interacting much with him. The person who knows his unspoken ways best, is taking a sabbatical.
As we sit in our own silence with this passage, ponder for a moment the ways we may have been "temporarily struck dumb" in our lives. Perhaps certain feelings or emotions have been struck dumb by painful episodes in our lives. At times, shock and grief over losses in our lives can leave us speechless. The black dog of depression can visit us and blunt our personalities. When we succumb to despair or adversity, our hopes are struck dumb. Most of us have been "unable to speak" at some point in our lives, or unable to "find our voices." In those times, we might even feel we have forgotten what our voices sounded like.
Odds on, Zechariah's silence must have felt very lonesome, and sometimes not silent all all, but very loud. But I'm betting that in that silence, he must have heard God begin to speak to him in a different way. He probably learned a lot about his own feelings in the silence.
But if we merely sit in our own silences long enough without fear, we hear our own voices differently, in addition to God's voice in a different way. I think of what a woman once told me when I came to help run a Bible study at the Adair County Jail. She said, "You know, my relatives tell me, 'Oh, you always find God when you're in the slammer.' Well, I think I do, too, but it's not the way they all tell me it is. I find him there because I don't have anything else distracting me. It's hard for me to see God when I get back on the outside, because there are too many things going on for me and they sort of cover up what I learned about God the last time I was in jail."
When we find ourselves incarcerated by our own spiritual "muteness," it could well be it is when we hear God the loudest, and paradoxically, not so much when we are surrounded by the ordinary noise of the world. In our seclusion, we may well find our center.