THE ZECHARIAH IN US: 23 December 2009 (Simbang Gabi)
Note: This homily was delivered last 23 December at the Simbang Gabi Mass in the Gesu, Ateneo de Manila University.
Just one more day to go before the day we celebrate the birth of our Lord!
But not so fast! The past couple of evenings, we have been invited first to think about another birth—the birth of our Lord’s cousin, John the Baptist. Amidst all the excitement and rejoicing in that household that day, one person was strangely silent: the father of the newborn baby, Zechariah. In the gospel story today, he more than makes up for it by breaking his silence and breaking into song, giving us one of the loveliest songs in the New Testament.
Lately I’ve been thinking about Zechariah. I have a suspicion that this silent character has something to say to us—a message that God wants us to hear loud and clear as we rush about in our last-minute preparations for Christmas.
Many of us already know his story. For many years Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth had prayed for a son—but to their growing dismay, their prayers were unanswered. In fact, when the angel Gabriel visited Mary at the Annunciation, he referred to Elizabeth as she “who is called barren,” hinting at the suffering that this old couple must have borne all those years. You see, for the Jews, being barren was a sure sign of God’s curse, and surely Zechariah and Elizabeth had to endure an endless series of embarrassing questions until people finally “got it” and stopped bringing it up in conversation.
Many of us know the feeling. We each have perhaps one area or aspect in our lives that doesn’t quite conform to people’s expectations—or our own: Maybe the pressure to perform or accomplish something in our studies, at work, or in sports; our own longing to belong; or our desire—or our parents’ desire or our spouse’s desire—for us to measure up in some way. Unfortunately, whatever it is, it’s not happening; and we just keep falling short. At first, well-meaning people express their concern by asking about it, unaware of the discomfort or pain their questions may cause. Then they begin to tiptoe around the topic, while others who are less kind cup their hand over their mouths and murmur behind our backs. The interrogations may have stopped, but the judgment remains there in people’s eyes—not to mention the pity.
I think this is how we ought to imagine Zechariah when the angel Gabriel appeared to him in the temple to announce the good news about Elizabeth’s long-awaited pregnancy. “Do not be afraid, Zechariah,“ the angel began, “for your prayer has been heard, and your wife will bear you a son.”
How many years Zechariah had longed to hear these words! So can we blame him if after the angel finishes his speech, Zechariah asks, “How will I know this?” If we read between the lines, I guess what he was thinking was: “Yeah, right! Now, how can I be sure?”
Well, the angel Gabriel must have read his mind. It’s too bad, I think, that the angel decided to strike him mute. Maybe he was having a particularly bad hair day, having a long list of chores and errands he had to run in preparation for this first Christmas.
I don’t know about you, but don’t you think Zechariah had a perfectly valid question? I mean, can we honestly blame the old man for asking the angel for some kind of proof? After all, I think Zechariah exemplifies the classic case of someone who has experienced the hazards of prolonged waiting. I mean, the guy is practically a victimof Advent!
Think about it: All his life, he and his wife waited—and were kept waiting—for years!
Unfortunately, something happens to us when we wait too long. Our hopes can be dashed only so much. Our hearts can be broken only so often. Our breath can be held only for so long. After a while, we get blue in the face. Worst of all, our hearts too can turn blue: We grow weary with waiting. We tire of hoping. And we eventually give up on praying for that one thing we’ve so long longed for.
Again we know the feeling, don’t we? We know what it feels like to be let down by life too often. We can only take so much! After a while, after getting beaten down too much, after watching our dreams not take flight too often, we end up getting disillusioned. We grow skeptical. We become jaded. We give up, we stop believing, and we stop hoping. We lose the capacity to imagine that what’s impossible can actually happen. But isn’t that what Christmas is all about when we think about it?The impossible happening. The unexpected unfolding. The unimaginable exploding in the very manger of our jaded, dream-weary world.
What was it again that the angel said to Mary? “Nothing is impossible with God.” We have to be willing to believe in the impossible. We have to be capable of stretching our imagination. And we have to be willing to hold our breath for as long as we can in anticipation of the surprises God has in store for us.
We can’t blame him, but the problem with Zechariah was that after waiting too long and being let down too often, he simply stopped believing in the impossible. He got sick of trying to stretch his imagination and eventually just refused to be surprised. I think Zechariah was the original guy who stopped believing in Santa Claus—so that when Santa finally slipped down their old chimney in the guise of an angel, all Zechariah could manage was raise a question and an eyebrow.
Whoever said we shouldn’t replace Christ with Santa Claus is of course right in criticizing the commercialization of Christmas. Santa Claus should never take the place of our Lord at the center of Christmas. But tonight I’d like to propose that we still need to believe in Santa. I’d like to suggest that this jolly character deserves his place right there in the belen along with the Holy Family and the angels, huddled with the shepherds and the wise men, and surrounded by the ox and donkey.
Over a hundred years ago, in 1897, an 8-year old girl named Virginia wrote the editor of the New York Sun a letter that led to an editorial that became the most reprinted editorial to run in any newspaper in the English language.
The letter said:
“Dear editor, I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, ‘If you see it in The Sun, it is so’. Please tell me the truth: Is there a Santa Claus?” Signed, Virginia, O’Hanlon.
Here’s a portion of the editor’s response—as timely today as it was over a hundred years ago:
“Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except what they see.
“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy.”
And so, here’s what I think is God’s message to us through the story and character of Zechariah, addressed especially to the Zechariah’s in us: “Yes, there is a Santa Claus!” Not the literal old jolly bearded man in a red suit, of course, but all the good things that he stands for: Joy, generosity, goodness, even magic…
If we can’t bring ourselves to believe in what Santa stands for, how can we even begin to believe in this wonderful mystery of the Infinite God Himself climbing down our chimneys to become a baby in a manger, to be one of us and one like us?
For me, our old friend Zechariah is the unsung hero of Advent. He is the poster boy of waiting because in the end God made sure that despite all those years of disappointments, he could once again hold his breath for the impossible.
This evening, just a night away from Christmas day, the day we’ve all been waiting for, the Lord invites us to gather our faded dreams, to resuscitate our tired imagination, and hold all the hopes and dreams of this world in our jaded hearts—and retrieve our faith in miracles: Let us remember what it means to dream. Let us believe once again in the impossible. And let us wait and hold our breath for Him Who, after all those centuries, will no longer keep us waiting.
Tonight we tell ourselves as in a prayer: “Yes, Virginia, and yes, Zechariah, there is a Santa Claus!” If we can’t believe in Santa, how can we believe in that surprise of surprises and that miracle of miracles we call Christmas?
Lord, tonight we thank you for the gift of Christmas.