Luke’s narrative opens in the Jerusalem Temple. It is the same Temple from which Jesus will later make his final fateful journey. Zechariah, a priest of the order of Aaron, is in the Temple performing his priestly duties. The angel Gabriel, the first of many who make up the chorus of Luke’s gospel, appears before him standing at the altar in the Holy of Holies where Zechariah serves. Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth are a couple on in years. He and Elizabeth are childless. But now he is told by Gabriel that his wife, believed to be barren, will give him a son. His prayers have been answered. With the incessant do not be afraid of the Lord’s messengers, Gabriel’s announcement imparts the mantle of the prophet Elijah on their unborn son, naming him John, delivering a not-so-subtle indication of the trajectory of John’s life. From being the joy and delight of his parents, to the commission to bring the repentance and return of the whole nation to Yahweh, even before his conception, John has his work cut out for him.
This first annunciation happens during the hour of incense, the rising smoke of the Temple offering calling the people to prayer. Unbeknownst to the waiting multitude, they are also being called to be among the first witnesses to their own saving. These are the first of the many crowds that will shadow Jesus throughout his life. From the outset, both John and Jesus draw the attention of many people in Judea and the surrounding countryside. From the people waiting outside the Temple to the neighbors who will rejoice along with Zechariah and Elizabeth, the births of these two extraordinary children, who will change the face of Israel and the world, is not to be a singular blessing for their parents alone, but an experience for the multitude and the many.
When Zechariah emerges from the Temple he is unable to speak, struck dumb by Gabriel because he openly dared to doubt the angel’s words. He can communicate only in signs. Yet when he emerges it is evident to the people that Zechariah has had a vision. Luke sets these events squarely in real time, noting the hour of the day, lest we get lost in the other-worldliness of angels and visions. It is three o’clock in the afternoon, known as the ninth hour. This will be the same hour in which Jesus breathes his last. Luke too is communicating in signs. He is signaling to his audience, already familiar with the sacred writings of Israel, something more telling about these events.
Zechariah returns home mute. He is able to indicate, however, to Elizabeth that they are to have a son. We do not hear Elizabeth’s response to this revelation until later, when she is visited by Mary. All we are told at this juncture is that once she conceives she keeps herself apart, like her people when they first came to Jerusalem, staying apart, growing quietly to maturity, deepening the roots of their faith. This news of this miraculous event ends Elizabeth’s humiliation of being barren; now she has only to wait and watch for the miracle to take root within her.
In another not-so-distant countryside from Zechariah and Elizabeth, another birth is announced by an angel. Before Israel held or heard of the child Jesus, a young Jewish girl, destined to be the first follower of her son, becomes a partner to the promise made long ago to her people. The ru’ah of Yahweh that hovered over the waters at creation will now overshadow the mother of Jesus, forming in her flesh the beloved son, who will later stand in the waters of the Jordan, blessed by that same spirit into his own life work.
©2014 Cathie Horrell. All Rights Reserved.