Poor Zechariah. He’s minding his priestly business, and suddenly an angel accosts him and delivers shocking news. Zechariah asks a completely understandable question—“How can I know this? After all, we’re old”—and Gabriel strikes him silent. Gabriel, do you need to be all testy and indignant? Poor Zechariah.
We can hardly blame him. After all, Luke 1:6 tells us that both Zechariah and Elizabeth were upright and blameless before the Lord. And Zechariah’s question sounds almost exactly like Mary’s question later on in the same chapter: “How can this be?” (v. 34). Even if we were to suppose that Zechariah’s question represents a tiny slip-up of doubt while Mary’s exhibits faith, even then: Silence? For months?
I wonder, though. Maybe the silence isn’t a punishment. Maybe it’s more about getting Zechariah out of the way.
“I have been sent to speak,” says Gabriel. I’m the one speaking words here, words that come straight from God. Luke 1:1-56 is obsessed with words and talking. The Greek words logoi and laleo are all over this passage in various forms. God speaks, the angel speaks, Mary and Elizabeth speak. The word for blessed, as in “blessed are you” and “blessed is the child,” is eulogemene—“good-spoken-of.”
The passage in Greek is even more obsessed with words that come from the root gen-. To bring forth a child, to come to pass, to become, generation to generation. All these words in Greek derive from the same root. In verses 1-56, gen-related words occur 14 times. Surely we are expected to read the clues.
God’s word is becoming, it is coming to pass. After a long wait—such long years of waiting—an urgent determination energizes the whole passage. This is the moment, and nothing will get in the way.
So the word comes to Zechariah, and Zechariah is silenced, and then a child is generated within Elizabeth. The righteousness of this faithful couple does not cause this marvel, nor do old age and barrenness prevent it. And then the word comes to Mary, and a child is generated within her. Her humility and purity do not cause this miracle, nor does her virginity prevent it. Because, as Gabriel says, “nothing is impossible with God.” A more exact translation would be: “Not shall-be-unable before God every utterance.” The utterances of God must bring forth their purpose; there is simply no option. In the Old Testament idiom, God’s words do not “fall to the ground.” They sweep in, irresistible.
When Gabriel makes his announcement to Mary, her question gets answered, and she offers her willing response: “May it become to me according to your utterance.” And then she hurries to visit Elizabeth.
Over the centuries, the faithful have speculated about why Mary would run off like this. Perhaps to avoid gossip in Nazareth? Perhaps because cousin Elizabeth needs some help around the house? Perhaps the hills of Judah are nice this time of year?
Within the shape of the narrative, Mary goes to Elizabeth because this creates an exclusively female space. The two women—one old and disgraced, the other young and ignored—embrace one another. Now is their time to speak. Elizabeth exclaims “in a loud voice”: Blessed, blessed, blessed! The Holy Spirit fills her words, fills her womb, fills every empty space.
Nothing against poor old Zechariah, but sometimes the ones who usually speak need to keep quiet. The ones who occupy the honored places in society, the priests and politicians, the capable and skilled, the smart and powerful—they all need to step aside. Maybe, too, that little skeptic in each one of us, blabbering on about what’s wrong with the world today and how everything is going downhill and, take it from me, I’ve been around long enough to be cynical, and it sure seems as if the horrors increase every year. Even the faithful and true, after all, get tired of praying for the same things over and over. The years go by. Nothing seems to change.
But then the word of the Lord comes to silence that part of us. The word of the Lord comes to silence the chatter of the powerful and still the strutting of the proud, to create a space for those who do not usually get to speak, a quiet moment where the disgraced embrace the ignored and something miraculous takes hold.
Sometimes those who seem barren or very young or outside the circle or unimportant—sometimes those are the ones God has chosen for a hidden purpose. After all, when you’re the one always in the shadows, you have time to listen and to perceive what the powerful hide even from themselves. Sometimes you are the one who hears God best.
In the same way, those places within each of us that feel disgraced and ignored, those are the places where God can plant a miracle. When Elizabeth hears Mary’s greeting, the baby leaps in her koilia, her cavity. She says to Mary, “Blessed is the fruit of your cavity.” If we can just get our worry and competence and bluster, however holy, to step aside and be quiet, we might find a lowly cavity hidden underneath and notice that it’s not as empty as we thought. Something very small and important is growing there.
So old Elizabeth speaks “Blessed” in a loud voice, and young Mary prophesies—feisty words proclaiming the mighty deeds of God across the generations. In God’s kingdom, everything is turned upside down: the proud rulers brought down, the humble exalted, the hungry filled, the rich left empty. Whatever our weariness and cynicism have gotten used to expecting, that’s what God is about to overturn. Nothing will get in the way of this, for the utterances of God never fail.
How we long today for the strong, unfailing, holy word of God! In a time when human words drown us in a torrent of the cheap, tawdry, deceptive, and cruel, we wonder if words can only ever confuse and destroy. Yet in Isaiah 55, God declares that the divine word “will not return to me empty, but will accomplish . . . the purpose for which I sent it.” And that purpose is life—restored, flourishing, everlasting life.
We know God’s promises, we profess God’s faithfulness, but how long must we wait for this generative word to come? Another thing we know about God’s powerful word is that it comes in God’s time, not ours. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord” (Isa. 55:8). Zechariah, Elizabeth, and Mary knew this very well. Their people had been waiting for generations for the Anointed One to come and save. They could do nothing either to cause or prevent or speed that day—nothing but pray and serve and wait.
And perhaps get out of the way. Luke 1 reminds us that God’s word comes in emptiness and silence. It begins in the hidden places where the usually quiet get to pipe up their praise, in the cavities that open up to receive the word of God.
That’s where the Logos is generated. The Word comes to pass. The Holy Spirit sweeps in to fill every empty space. Christ is born.