Fourth Sunday of Advent, 2015: Situation normal?

Stuart Miles /
Stuart Miles /

How does life go back to the same old routine after you’ve experienced a miracle? Shouldn’t we be changed forever?

Consider the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1), the parents of John the Baptist. In the midst of his temple duties, Zechariah was confronted by the angel Gabriel, who brought unexpected good news: the couple would finally have a child, a son. Gabriel instructed Zechariah to name the boy John, promising that he would be filled with the Holy Spirit and do great things for God. Somehow, Zechariah recovered enough from his fear to let his skepticism show: “Isn’t that a bit of a stretch? I mean, we’re not exactly in our prime anymore.”

If I had been in Gabriel’s place, I probably would have rolled my eyes and said, “Well, then, Mr. Smarty-Pants, what exactly did you think you were praying for anyway?” But Gabriel instead made Zechariah unable to speak until the day of John’s birth.

Was it a punishment for his faithlessness? Perhaps. But I suspect that a mute Zechariah was a better witness to the miracle than one with his voice and skepticism intact. He emerged from the temple excitedly waving his arms and making signs, and the people knew something unusual had happened. And for anyone who still wasn’t sure, the aged Elizabeth’s growing belly soon gave its own silent witness.

But eventually, for the relatives and neighbors, the miracle seems to have become domesticated, perhaps even forgotten. They rejoiced when Elizabeth gave birth, as they might have with any long-awaited child. But when it came time to name the boy, they assumed he would be named after his father, as was the custom. Elizabeth, knowing the angel’s command, said no, and insisted that the child be named John.

The people were confused. It was an opportunity for them to remember, to understand: Oh, yes, that’s right. This is a miracle child. And Elizabeth isn’t given to fits of irrationality. She must know something we don’t.

But instead, they said, “John? What are you talking about? No one in the family is named John.” Predictably, they went over Elizabeth’s head to her husband. Surely he would restore order and sanity to the proceedings.

It’s a comic scene. The people, trying to get the final word on the boy’s name, are gesticulating to Zechariah. Why? He’s mute, not deaf. And I doubt that he would have had any trouble mouthing the words with exaggerated lip movements: “His…name…is…Jooohhhnnn.” He could have made them understand. But they wouldn’t have believed him — “Wait, did he say, ‘John’? No, that can’t be right. Zechariah, say it again!” — not until, probably in exasperation, he actually wrote it down so there could be no mistake.

He did, and they were astonished.

Suddenly, Zechariah could speak again, after months of silence. And this time, he was the enthusiastic witness to the mercy and might of God that he should have been from the start.

The people were even more astonished. The word spread. They remembered the miracle, and wondered aloud what this boy John would turn out to be.

At Christmas, we sometimes say that we are celebrating a miracle. But I wonder: has the miracle itself become more like a distant memory? Has it become domesticated behind all the cultural trappings that have become more meaningful to us than the miracle itself?

Advent gives us the opportunity to remember, to understand, and to be astonished again.