Disbelief has a way of silencing us. It incapacitates us to offer anything to others; it steals the fruitfulness of joy, the generosity of hope. When confronted with the reality of chronic disappointment or the litany of unmet expectations, words become few; there’s just not much to say especially about that which we had been so hopeful. At this point, silence becomes a defense mechanism, a passive acknowledgement of what lies in the shadows, while also an active resistance to engage the possibility of a hopeful fulfillment. The risk to believe yields to an attitude of apathy.
Having sat liturgically with the birth narrative of John the Baptist in Luke’s Gospel for the last several years, I can’t help but wonder if Zechariah’s inability to speak after encountering the angel Gabriel had less to do with a punishment and more to do with an outward manifestation of an inward state. The joyous message of Gabriel was just too good to be true and the pain of prior experiences paralyzed Zechariah with an inability to speak (literally) of God’s faithfulness. His response is akin to what Christians later defined as acedia: “… the absence of care – when life becomes too challenging and engagement with others too demanding, you know pain is there, yet can’t rouse yourself to give a damn” (Acedia & Me by Kathleen Norris, 2008).
When seen in this light, the landscape of the Christmas narrative takes on a personalized form. Not only was the message of Gabriel announcing God’s redemptive purposes for the whole world, it also was an individualized message to an elderly couple whom though “were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord” (Lk.1:6 NIV) had given up hope that God could redeem their circumstances, a state of mind and heart that when left unchecked led to despair.
Advent’s hope and it’s fulfillment in Christmas is the trumpet call of God’s promise and faithfulness: a witness to the Resurrection, a narrative form of the Psalmist’s words “The LORD will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O LORD, endures forever” (Ps. 138:8a NIV).
Far from a narcissistic goal, this “ruthless trust” in the faithfulness of God perpetually duplicates itself in others resulting in “many rejoicing” and “turning to the Lord their God.”
Though I often identify with Zechariah, I am constantly challenged with the example of Mary: “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Lk. 1:38 NIV).