Birth of the Word in the Soul Part IV

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.

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Birth of the Word in the Soul Part II

angel to Zechariah  John the Baptist stands at the confluence of the two testaments. The Hebrew Bible ends with the Book of Malachi. In Malachi, Yahweh is speaking. His are the first words of Genesis and his will be the last words in the final chapter of the recorded history of Israel. In Malachi we hear the Lord God’s last lament over his people, an impassioned reminder of what he has done for them, who he is for them and what he expects of them. He tells them he will send an Elijah-like prophet to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers. These enjoinders echo in the angel’s announcement of John’s birth to Zechariah at the opening of Luke’s gospel.  Through Gabriel, Yahweh voice reverberates in his Temple, across two testaments, charging John even before he is in the world with the task of preparing the path and the people for the next emissary of Israel’s fierce, possessive, loving God.

As the second testament begins, Yahweh sets himself squarely in the midst of Israel again, making himself the architect of these two unlikely births. The Spirit of Yahweh inhabiting Luke’s gospel will overtake John, from the outset setting him apart. John will not follow in his father’s footsteps as a Temple priest. The Temple priests were hand-picked by Yahweh to bring the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem after David took the holy city for his people. Rather, John has been chosen to carry the covenant back into the imagination of Israel, to grow in the wilderness, raving like a mad man on the margins of society, a fiery prophet challenging, cajoling the Hebrew people. His words ring out much like Yahweh at the end of Malachi. Between the two testaments comes a yawning silence. But before his voice goes silent, Yahweh Sabbaoth entreats the tribes of Israel, who have strayed from the covenant, to repent and return to him so that he can return to them.

The prophets are gone. A remnant awaits. A child is born. A child who comes into the ordinariness of life, into the midst of a faithful remnant waiting for a messiah to deliver them from their Roman oppressors and reclaim the vision of the covenant, now imaged in the birth of a child. This child, Jesus.

From the moment of his conception, Jesus’ life is marked by many journeys. The first he makes inside his mother, when she goes to visit Elizabeth to share her good tidings. At the end of Mary’s half-day’s walk to Zechariah’s house, it is John in his mother’s womb who first acknowledges by his leap of joy the cousin for whom he will pave the path made of the expectant hopes of the Jewish people. The next journey Jesus makes is to Bethlehem, still safely ensconced within his mother, his father Joseph leading her mount across the rocky wilderness to a census taking and his birth. Throughout his life Jesus journeys toward each new horizon of being before him. But the journey that was his long before he came into the world, is the journey the Hebrew nation made as they crossed the wilderness, on their way to becoming the people of God.

© 2014 Cathie Horrell. All Rights Reserved.