A Reflection on the Gospel Lesson for Advent IV 21 December 2014
by David Somerville+
God visited the priest, Zechariah, through his message-bearing angel, Gabriel. And, of course, he visited St. Mary the virgin of Nazareth. But have we paid attention to God’s visits with us — you? Me? How about God’s visits to our loved ones? When we have been visited, have we been available to get the point of the message? Winston Churchill once said, “If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver!” Have we frustrated God and tempted him to use something like a pile driver to get our attention?
Gabriel, in Luke 1:1-25, had a quieter, but much more powerful tool than a pile driver. He used the power of God to silence the talkative, highly educated, and very professional priest, Zechariah — first to get him to listen, truly listen, and then to get his message across.
Mary in the Gospel lesson for Advent IV, Luke 1:26-38 did not need silencing. She did not debate, or question the angel. She chose, instead, to do what was natural for her — cooperate with a power that was as frightening as it was incomprehensible. When Gabriel told her not to be afraid, she simply obeyed.
How shall we, with our developing Advent spirituality, get the most out of the stories of Zechariah and Mary? One way is to read the passage designated for the Daily Office that comes the following Monday morning – 22 December. (This lesson might go unnoticed because of the transfer of Saint Thomas’ Day). Monday’s ferial (i.e. “normally” or “ordinarily” appointed) lesson for Advent IV is the annunciation of Gabriel to Zechariah. Some preachers might consider reading both passages in continuity as the Gospel for Advent IV to make available to the faithful the telling of the angel’s visit to Zechariah six months before Gabriel speaks to Mary. To be able to compare the two appearances of Gabriel is instructive.
In the first of these stories, Gabriel announces to the aging temple priest that his wife, Elizabeth, will conceive a baby in her old age. Then half a year later he delivers the message of God’s plan to Mary, the inexperienced, virgin teenager, that she too will conceive a baby by the power of the Holy Spirit. There are similarities in the two visits. But the differences are as stark as they are important: the virgin’s reaction, as a young girl with no formal education, answers the angel with her heart in the spirit of perfect trust. Zechariah, on the other hand, made things difficult for himself, by using his proudly educated brain and his mouth a little too much for his own good. All Mary, on the other hand, did was to offer her heart with the intuitive character of her soul.
Zechariah was technically righteous. Give him credit for that. But the elderly priest became an object lesson in the canon as one who needed to be silenced. Mary, by way of contrast, did not need to be silenced. She already was perfectly quiet in her humility, because she had no other way to react to the engulfing presence of this numinous being, one simply who was not of this ordinary world with its familiar time and space. Ironically, perhaps, Mary was better prepared for this encounter with the divine because she understood herself to be an insignificant nobody, a female teenager, in Nazareth, a place of nobodies, undistinguished in their ordinariness. Nazareth was more a crossroads than a place. It was used as a stop for international caravans, which needed a place to pause for crew and animal rest. It was a town not unlike Brunswick or Waycross here in Georgia. Most people go through these kinds of places to make connections, and continue on to someplace else they deem to be more important – golf tournaments, for example, on Saints Simons or Jekyll Island, boating in Jacksonville, or a cruise from the port of Miami.
I have a challenging quality about myself, a growing edge that causes me to identify with Zechariah: Last Spring at the Emotional Intelligence Workshop at Honey Creek, I learned that I would be well served if I owned up to a tendency to think and talk so much that I loose opportunities to listen quietly. I found that to be not a little disheartening. There was a consensus that I often did not “get the point” of whatever controversy was being discussed.
I had not changed much in this respect sixty years after an incident when I was a kid at a Pennsylvania summer camp. I was afraid of the chilly wind and the choppy waters of a lake in the Pocono Mountains, and doubted the seaworthiness of a single-sail dinghy that I was being taught to master in the course, Introduction to Sailing.
The instructor had the blunt qualities of a New Yorker from the Bronx. He was frustrated with my failure to listen to his instructions,
“David”, he barked “Will ya shut up already, and listen? What I told you to do is hold on to the rudder with your left hand, and never let go of it. Then gently hold the rope with your right hand, the rope that belongs to the boom, with the bottom of the main sail attached. When a gust of wind fills the sail, be easy with the rope! Don’t hold it tight. Let it go gently. You’d be amazed at what the wind will do for you!”
So along came a gust of wind. I did just the opposite of what I was told: I let go of the rudder while I clenched the boom. The boat listed badly, and the portside gunwale (the left side of the boat) went under, and the lake rushed in! The dinghy was completely swamped, and once again for a third time, I, and the dinghy, had to be towed onto the landing, so the counselors could lift the boat sideways, dump the water out, and then start over again.
“You know what your problem is, Somerville?” said the instructor. “You think too much, you panic, and you end up fighting the wind!” Well, there’s a familiar note: Have you seen people get miserable because they fight with God? There are good reasons why “wind” is a well-known symbol for the driving presence that can help, but not be controlled.
Age difference not withstanding, Zechariah was a little like the way I was, trying to captain a dinghy. Gabriel, a personage more frightening and powerful than a breeze in the Poconos, certainly, caused the old priest to freeze up with all his questions. He got too busy to listen. Zechariah said in effect, “You mean to tell me that my wife and I at our ages are going to have a baby??? In effect he was saying something along the lines of “Hey… Surely you jest! I am an educated man, so you can’t expect me to believe this! How could you prove it anyway? So God, through Gabriel, told Zechariah to “shut up already and listen” in a way that got not only Zechariah’s attention, but the attention of all faithful Christians ever since the wind of God rushed in on the day of Pentecost.
“Tis the most exciting time of the year”, so goes the background music at the mall, celebrating a lovely fact that cannot be disputed. So how are we managing the excitement? Have we been easy with the rope to welcome the gusting breezes of the Advent season, the kind of wind that can give life, energy, and progress to our souls? Have we been minding the direction of the wind, and then pointing our bows appropriately forward as we handle the rudder? Or is the sail warning us of wasted energy and misdirection with that restless warning noise, sailors call luffing?
The final collect in this season of reflection and preparation leads me to assess with fear and trembling the texture of my mid December spiritual life. Does it suggest something to you, dear reader and friend? It does for me, so I have personally modified it (with apologies to the custodian of the Book of Common Prayer): “Purify my conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son, Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in me …” something better than a dad-gum water-swamped dinghy of a soul, riddled with the chaotic waters of fear and anxiety,” and if it be your will, O Lord, spare me this time from the pile driver of your sadness owing to my failure to listen!