I’ve been trying to figure out this guy Zechariah. As you probably know, Zechariah was the father of John the Baptist, and the husband of Elizabeth, who happened to be Mary’s cousin. He’s the very first character we meet in the Gospel of St. Luke.
In that opening scene, the angel Gabriel appeared to him in the temple, and Zechariah was told the surprising and wonderful news that his wife Elizabeth was finally pregnant, after enduring years of being called “barren” by their neighbors. But then he asked: “How can I be sure of this?”
We’re often told that it was his lack of faith that led the angel to strike him mute so that Zechariah was unable to speak until his son was born. But I wonder if that was the only issue. After all, for a devoted Jew like Zechariah, becoming a parent at a late age wasn’t too far-fetched: think Abraham fathering Isaac.
So what could have been Zechariah’s problem? Why didn’t he jump for joy and rush out of the temple to announce this news to Elizabeth and their friends?
Well, we can’t really know for sure, but as today’s Gospel reading tells us, something happened eight days after the birth of John the Baptist that might just give us some kind of clue:
It was time for the baby’s circumcision, and just about everyone expected the child to be named “Zechariah,” after his father. Imagine their relatives’ surprise when Elizabeth said the child’s name was John. “But you don’t have any relative named John!” they protested. So they rushed to Zechariah, who, remembering the angel’s instruction, asked for a tablet and in writing, agreed with his wife.
Only then, we’re told, when Zechariah wrote “His name is John,” was his mouth opened and tongue freed. And the first words that came pouring out of his mouth were God’s praises.
Could it be that it was all about the name? Maybe the problem was not so much Zechariah believing the news about his wife’s pregnancy, but following what the angel instructed him to do in the same breath that Zechariah was told about his upcoming son: to name his son John.
You see, naming babies was such a big deal for the Jews. The strict tradition at the time was to name children after their parents, grandparents, or relatives, whether living or dead. You don’t just pluck a name just out of nowhere–or from any tree except your own family tree. So for Zechariah and Elizabeth to name their son after no known relative was totally unheard of.
I suspect that Zechariah wanted to be able to name his son after himself—or at the very least after his father or some beloved relative. For parents, after all, there’s something about choosing a baby’s name yourself that allows you to make the baby your own. But when Zechariah got this unexpected gift from God, he wanted to accept it on his own terms. Only when he finally agreed to name it John, the name chosen by God and a name that by the way means “God’s gift”, was he able to speak again.
Maybe the trouble with Zechariah was not so much a lack of faith, but his lack of surrender.
All of us, you and I, have a tendency to be like Zechariah. Instead of jumping for joy and rushing out in gratitude, we often set conditions before accepting God’s gifts. In other words, like Zechariah, we want to “have our cake and eat it too. ”
But unfortunately, that’s just not how it’s supposed to work. Unlike us, when God gives His gifts, He does so freely and unconditionally, with only our best in mind. He is a gift-giver with no strings attached. But He expects us to trust Him, to believe that even if His gifts sometimes come wrapped differently, they are ultimately for our own good. In other words, He invites us to accept His gifts alsowith no strings attached.
Maybe tonight you can think of one special gift that God has given you this past year. It may have been some good news that you received, a positive experience you underwent, or a life-giving relationship you found. But it’s also possible that God’s special gift to you this last year came wrapped in bad news; some sort of a “blessing in disguise,” something that you could recognize as a gift only later.
Whatever it is, ask yourself: “Have I been a free and unconditional receiver of this gift from God?” In other words, did you accept and value this gift wholeheartedly, with everything that went with it? Did you open your hands to receive God’s gift–with no strings attached?
Christmas is truly the season for gifts. May the story of Zechariah teach us all the true meaning of gift-giving! Let us pray that we learn not only from the God Who gives with no strings attached, but also from Zechariah who learned to receive God’s gift with no strings attached.