So they made signs, asking his father what he wished him to be called.
He asked for a tablet and wrote, “John is his name,” and all were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened, his tongue freed, and he spoke blessing God.
Sometimes the oddest things jump out at me from the readings. Today it was this bit from the naming of John the Baptist. Casting my mind back a few weeks to the start of the story, I remembered the circumstances of Zechariah’s unfortunate silence:
The angel answered him, "I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God. I was sent to speak to you, and to bring you this good news. Behold, you will be silent and not able to speak, until the day that these things will happen, because you didn't believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their proper time."
Note, please, that Gabriel did not tell him he would be deaf until the child was born—just mute. For that reason, it struck me unreasonably funny—grinning inappropriately in the middle of the Gospel reading funny—that the people around him didn’t just talk to Zechariah. His ears were working just fine. Even when Gabriel spoke to him, Zechariah heard what was said, he just couldn’t believe it.
I suppose there are a lot of reasons why Zechariah was struck dumb, but it seems to me it was a time-honored spiritual discipline: cultivating exterior silence. When we stop talking, it shakes up our relations with each other and with ourselves. When we stop talking, we lose power over others, and ourselves. Not to be able to talk is to be helpless….. When we stop talking, when we are helpless, there’s at least a chance we’ll start listening.
I went through a period when I was unable to talk for three long weeks—far less than nine long months. I remember my initial frustration at not being part of community; so much of what passes for human interaction is mediated by speech. And I remember extreme frustration at not being able to make myself understood. Writing took so long and signing was imperfect at best. And I remember blinding rage at two kinds of folks—the ones who simply ignored that I was under strict orders not to talk and would still ask me questions—and those who simply figured that, because I couldn’t talk, I didn’t exist. And I remember how dependent I was on those around me, to include me, to understand me, to help me. Even so, I never much got past the irritation stage….
Personally, I think Zechariah showed great restraint. I’d have written I can hear! before I wrote his name is John. But that’s because it seems to me he had more time to enter into that silence and learn from it. He’d grown, if you will, another set of ears in the process, ears that hears more sharply than the ones he’d been gifted with at birth. And his hearing became very focused in the process. The misunderstandings of others were not going to distract him from Him he knew and what he knew and what he knew he had to say, once he could talk again.
Zechariah was no dummy. As a priest of the Israelite people, he understood as well as any and better than most the long and powerful history of God working among his people, even—especially—stories of barrenness made fertile by the Word of God. I’m willing to spot him faith in the grand sense, faith in the great scheme of things. What he lacked, it seems, was faith in the small details. Zechariah was like a scientist that gets the theory just fine, but can’t quite manage to put it into practical terms. Faith that God was going to work with him, here and now in what had to be the fondest, most shattered dream of his heart, the desire for a son.
And I know for a fact he responded exactly as I would have—as I did, in fact, under the same circumstances—how can I know this? In other words, I believe you can do this, but how will I know that you have? Faith in the large sense, doubt in the small sense. Always looking for signs are we of little faith.
Contrast that with Mary: How can this be since I know not man? Mary’s answer seems suffused with bewilderment, not doubt; bewilderment precisely because she believes it can be done because God wills it. She doesn’t ask for a sign, but an explanation. And that she hears from Gabriel himself.
Zechariah asked for a sign but he got none—instead he entered into silence, which seems to be God’s go-to response when we ask the wrong question at the wrong time and demand proof instead of faith. Faith is, after all, always the condition precedent and proof is never enough. Zechariah got silence from God on the subject at hand and silence in his life. The only signs he got seem to be from his friends and family trying hard to enter into the silence of his life through those signs, and getting it all wrong in the bargain, missing what was the problem in the first place. Not his ears, but his heart; not his tongue so much as his faith.
That’s the problem with signs. Too easy to misinterpret, and if you’re a lawyer like me, it’s far too easy to argue either side of the issue, come up with competing and mutually exclusive explanations. And, because I am a quick study, I’ve got the lines from the Father of Lies down pat. God’s lines are harder to hear, because they’re spoken in silence. Like Zechariah, I think I have an intellectual handle on faith, but also like him, I falter in the details because I so very much want to understand so that I can believe. I want to make sense of the things that are happening to me, and I can’t. I can’t . I could try to explain why I can’t but that would just perpetuate the problem.
Perhaps I need to remember like Zechariah the benefits of silence. Of learning through that interior quiet what Mary knew at the very outset: faith begets understanding, not the other way around. And signs, they’ll lead you astray unless you see them with the eyes of faith.
But there’s hope for Zechariah and for me. With God there always is, always a way to get us where we need to be, either by lead or by goad or sometimes, both.
I was struck, too, by the fact that Zechariah didn’t get his voice back when John was born; that would have been a reasonable interpretation of Gabriel’s words and quite an honest way of interpreting the sign of being struck dumb, if sign it were. I have to wonder whether Zechariah was disappointed when he first held his son in his arms and he remained mute. Perhaps he doubted again, perhaps he thought he had misunderstood, perhaps he wanted another sign? Or perhaps, after his season of silence, he was content to wait in faith, content to let God be God with His own seasons and times. I think it must have been the latter.
It was eight days later, when John was being circumcised that Zechariah regained his voice, and not then until he had the opportunity to write in faith what he had doubted in his mind: His name is John. God did exactly what God said he would do and Zechariah, after his silence, was prepared to give witness to that reality, voice or no voice.
And at that, his tongue was loosened and the first thing he did was give thanks to God. Just like Mary, once Zechariah’s faith caught up with him, his first act was to praise God. Mary did it right away, Zechariah nine months and eight days later—but they both did it. Important lesson: faith ultimately begets praise. And perhaps, when I feel my faith faltering, I will remember that praise also begets faith.
Faith first, then understanding, sometimes slowly, painfully, in fits and starts. Sometimes in silence.