We are connected to the founders of Israel by the way Elizabeth and Zechariah’s story is a retelling of the story of Sarah and Abraham—the people who are beyond the years when they can have a child, when God intervenes through a divine messenger to make the impossible possible. Sarah’s laughter at the idea of bearing a child is transformed in this story into Zechariah’s honest confusion and questioning of the angel, but with more dire results. Zechariah is struck dumb for his lack of faith.
This has always bothered me. Why doesn’t anything happen to Mary when she asks basically the same question as Zechariah? Why doesn’t anything happen to Sarah when she laughs? Why must Zechariah and only Zechariah suffer for lack of faith when he questions an angel—when all the prophets question their calling—Moses, Amos, Isaiah—they all object to what God is calling them to do. Zechariah doesn’t even object—he just asks how this could possibly be, given the reality of the situation.
Here’s one possible explanation. It would be anachronistic to say that Zechariah was the 1% of Israel of his days, but he comes from a priestly family, and he is as “in” with the temple as you can be. He is—so far as the temple life goes—the mighty. He is also the lowly in the overall political life of their culture and time as Jews in Roman-occupied Israel, but he is also a man of power. Elizabeth has less power; still from a priestly family, still honored, no doubt, but her barrenness—for which she was responsible in the understanding of the day—pushes her down in daily humiliation as she is reminded of her barrenness every time she sees another woman with a child.
So when Zechariah is silenced, it is left to Elizabeth to name their child. He has to lose his voice—for a season—so that the one who has been shamed and disgraced can find her voice. Elizabeth names John, not his father. The temple authorities don’t want to let her name John—but Zechariah is able to support her voice in writing, and the authorities accede to her wish.
By the end of the story, they both are able to speak, and Zechariah’s voice is let loose in song. Which is a narrative example of the kind of change God is creating in Jesus, described in the Magnificat and the Benedictus, an incarnate hope for what God desires: that all should find their voice. It isn’t just about turning the world upside down and the poor now becoming the oppressors of the rich, God’s promise is about sitting at the table together as equals. God’s promise is that we should know when we need to speak up, and when we need to let others speak.
Question: Where in your life do you need to make yourself mute so that others can speak? And where do you need to claim your voice and speak up?