Zechariah and Silence, December 19, 1998

Rev. Mr. Roger J. Landry
Domus Sanctae Mariae Guadalupensis, Rome
December 19, 1998
Judges 13:2-7,24-25; Lk 1:5-25

“But now you will be mute — unable to speak — until the day when these things take place, because you have not trusted my words.”

Put yourself in the Angel Gabriel’s wings for a moment. You have just told a childless aging priest, blamelessly following all of the commandments and ordinances of the Lord, that God had finally heard his prayer, that he and his wife would soon rejoice and have a son, who in the Spirit and power of the founder of the Carmelites would bring many sons of Israel to the Lord and prepare for him a people well-disposed.

Rather than respond with faith to this great news, Zechariah replies with great doubt, asking for some sign that it would come true, suggesting that he and his wife are almost too old to believe this. Gabriel’s response is extraordinarily interesting and Zechariah’s punishment even more so: Because he had not trusted in God’s word, he would be struck mute until the day when these things would take place.

On the face of it, this punishment seems quite arbitrary. We could have imagined alternative responses to the old man’s disbelief in God’s blessings — for example, “Deal’s off, Zach!” But instead of punishing Zechariah punitively, God punishes him medicinally, so that Zechariah could replace his doubt with faith. God silences him. And in choosing such a penalty, God reveals to us the inherent connection between faith and silence.

In Zechariah’s case, the imposed silence gave him a chance to reflect on the words of the Angel, the great blessing and honor that would come to him and his wife, on the great destiny of their son. It also gave him a chance to listen and marvel as six months later, their teenage relative arrived from Nazareth, with an even more miraculous pregnancy and even more precious cargo. And it prepared him to blast out with praise to almighty God when at last his tongue was loosened, a prayer the Church recites every morning to this day.

Just like Zechariah, we need such silence to grow in faith, a silence that is more than just refraining from talking, but an interior bow to things that are ineffable, that are truly incapable of being fathomed in words. Such silence allows us to take in the experience first, to let it sink deeply, so that we never forget it and are transformed by it. Then we can proclaim it from the rooftops.

Too often, when we experience God’s action in ours lives, our nervousness can cause us to try to grasp it immediately, either by trying to frame it be questions such as Zechariah did or by labelling it in some way “awesome,” “sublime,” “overwhelming,” as if words could ever capture such an event. Only the habit of silence, of “treasuring things in the heart,” can do justice to these experiences. Then after having treasured them, after having let them seek deeply into our being and transform us, then we can be ready to pass them on to others as Zechariah did with his at John’s circumcision.

At this Mass, we have been called to participate in the greatest event ever, the sacrifice of the Son of God on Calvary for our salvation. We are going to receive God’s own flesh and blood within us. Let us receive that Word of God within us, treasure Him in silence, and use the gift of silence to help us grow in faith. We shouldn’t even try to form words: what’s happening here is much greater than what happened to Zechariah! God himself has chosen to come and abide within us! Maranatha! Yes, Jesus truly is coming, not merely at Christmas, not merely at the end of time, but right now! In reverent awe and contemplative silence, come let us adore him!