SET 2: Season of Annunciation
Zechariah and Elizabeth were childless for a long time. The society considered them accursed, imputing it as God’s punishment. However, they remained faithful to the Lord and served God and His people. Though ‘barrenness’ could be ground for divorce, Zechariah did not attempt that. After testing their faith, the Lord favoured them with a son who became the forerunner of the Messiah. Those who had looked down upon Zechariah and Elizabeth now looked up to them because the circumstances surrounding the birth of their son John had a strong flavour of divine intervention. Let us likewise keep up our faith and continue doing acts of charity, no matter that our petitions seem to be going unanswered!
Announcement of the Birth of John
(Lk 1:5) In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there lived a priest named Zechariah, belonging to the priestly clan of Abijah. Elizabeth, Zechariah’s wife, also belonged to a priestly family. (6) Both of them were upright in the eyes of God and lived blamelessly in accordance with all the laws and commands of the Lord, (7) but they had no children. Elizabeth was barren and now they were both very old.
(8) Now, while Zechariah was serving in the temple along with the priests of his division, whose turn it was to serve, (9) it fell to him by lot, according to the custom of the priests, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and burn incense. (10) While all the people who had gathered for the incense service were praying outside, (11) an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing on the right side of the altar of incense. (12) On seeing the angel, Zechariah was deeply troubled and fear took hold of him.
(13) But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, be assured that your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son and you shall name him John. (14) He will bring joy and gladness to you and many will rejoice at his birth.
(15) This son of yours will be great in the eyes of the Lord. Listen: he shall never drink wine or strong drink, he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb. (16) He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. (17) He himself will open the way to the Lord with the spirit and power of the Prophet Elijah; he will reconcile fathers and children, and lead the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, in order to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” (18) Zechariah said to the angel, “How can I believe this? I am an old man and my wife is getting on in years.” (19) The angel replied, “I am Gabriel, who stands before God, and I have been sent to speak to you and bring you this good news! (20) But because you have not believed my words, which will come true at the proper time, you will be mute and unable to speak until this has happened.”
Background: The Prehistory of Jesus
Just as the antecedents of Abraham, the ‘father in faith’, are described in Genesis chapters 1-11; likewise, the background of Jesus, the universal redeemer, is given in the Gospels. Luke goes deeper into it than the other evangelists:
(1) The announcement of John the Baptist’s birth (Lk 1:5-25).
(2) Angel Gabriel announcing Jesus Christ’s birth (Lk 1:26-38).
(3) Mary’s visit to Elizabeth (Lk 1:39-45).
(4) The Canticle of Mary (Lk 1:46-56).
(5) The birth of John (Lk 1:57-66).
(6) The Canticle of Zechariah (Lk 1:67-80).
Matthew starts his gospel with the genealogy of Jesus, beginning with Abraham, going down to King David, and concluding with Joseph, the husband of Mary (Mt 1:1-17). God made a covenant with Abraham and David and promised them that the saviour of the world would come from their lineage. Luke gives another genealogy from Mary’s side (Lk 3:23-38). Here it traces back from Mary through King David to Adam, the “son of God”. God’s first covenant with humanity was in the Garden of Eden. God promised that a universal saviour would arise from Adam’s offspring (Gen 3:15).
(5) In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there lived a priest named Zechariah, belonging to the priestly clan of Abijah. Elizabeth, Zechariah’s wife, also belonged to a priestly family.
In the days of Herod, king of Judea
Luke gives the political backdrop of the time because King Herod the Great had a prominent role in the early stage of Jesus’ life. Herod had endangered Jesus’ life when he was an infant. Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar had appointed Herod as the king of Judea (40/37 BC – 4 BC). However, the Jews questioned his legitimacy because he was not of King David’s lineage. Herod’s father Antipater, was an Idumean – a non-Jew. Only a true Davidic descendant could be accepted as ‘King of the Jews’.
Herod was afraid when he heard from the Magi that a licit king had been born for the Jews. Since he could not identify the infant King, he gave orders to kill all children below two years of age in and around Bethlehem, prompting the Holy Family to flee to Egypt and live there for some time as refugees.
Zechariah belonging to the priestly clan of Abijah
Just as God established David’s lineage as the royal lineage, so too God established Aaron’s lineage as the priestly lineage. Every direct descendant of Aaron was a member of the Levitical priesthood. Since there were many priests by right of descent, King David had divided them into 24 sections. Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, was from Abijah’s division, the eighth of these 24 sections (1 Chr 24:10).
Elizabeth, Zechariah’s wife
Jesus’ mother and foster father were from King David’s royal family. John the Baptist’s parents were from the priestly clan of Aaron. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, the Levite priests were careful to marry within the tribe to keep the dignity of their priesthood. Though Mary and Elizabeth were relatives, both belonged to different tribes of Israel because intertribal marriages occurred between the elite tribes of Judah and Levi.
(6) Both of them were upright in the eyes of God and lived blamelessly in accordance with all the laws and commands of the Lord, (7) but they had no children. Elizabeth was barren and now they were both very old.
In the sight of their contemporaries, the childlessness of Zechariah and Elizabeth was God’s punishment. According to the belief of the time, though Zechariah and Elizabeth appeared pious, they were not justifiable before God. However, the Word of God testifies that both were righteous in God’s eyes. They “lived blamelessly in accordance with all the laws and commands of the Lord” (v. 6).
Despite Zechariah and Elizabeth’s faithfulness to God, they did not get any answer to their prayers for a child in time. Elizabeth was barren and advanced in age. So, it was well nigh impossible for them to have a child when the angel appeared to Zachariah.
Some prominent persons in the salvation history were born late to their parents when it was naturally impossible. Some examples are Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Samson, and Samuel. According to the Proto-Evangelium of Saint James, Mary the mother of Jesus was also the child of her parents Joachim and Anne’s old age.
(8) Now, while Zechariah was serving in the temple along with the priests of his division, whose turn it was to serve, (9) it fell to him by lot, according to the custom of the priests, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and burn incense. (10) While all the people who had gathered for the incense service were praying outside…
It fell to him by lot.
All priests served in the Temple of Jerusalem during the busy season of the three pilgrimage feasts: the Passover, the Pentecost, and the Feast of the Tabernacles. At other times, each division of priests served two terms of one week each in a year. Even then, it was unnecessary to have all priests of the division to serve in the Temple during the off-season, so the authorities would select a few by lot, which they would then impute as God’s choice. Many would not get this opportunity. God’s providence ensured that Zechariah got the much sought after chance to incense at the Holy Place in the Temple at that juncture.
To enter the sanctuary of the Lord
The Temple of Jerusalem had different sections. The most sacred place was the Holy of Holies, a dark place where only the High Priest entered once a year on the feast day of Atonement with a lamp to incense. This was the Ark of the Covenant’s location in the first Temple that King Solomon had built. The adjacent section was the Holy Place where the priests did the daily incensing before the morning sacrifice and after the evening sacrifice. The golden altar of incense was here. Only priests had access to the Holy Place, where there were also the menorah and the table of showbread. It was here that the Angel of the Lord appeared to Zechariah.
All the people who had gathered for the incense service were praying outside.
Ordinary people used to pray outside the Holy Place’s entrance, waiting for the priest to come outside and bless them. They could not see what was happening inside because of the veil that separated them from the Holy Place.
(11) … the Angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right of the altar of incense.
This Angel’s name was Gabriel. The Bible specifies Gabriel’s appearance on three occasions. The first was to Daniel (Dan 8:16) to interpret his dream, the second was to Zechariah (Lk 1:19), and the third was to Mary (Lk 1:26). Out of these, only Zechariah’s vision happened in the Temple.
(12) On seeing the angel, Zechariah was deeply troubled and fear took hold of him. (13) But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, be assured that your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son and you shall name him John.”
The unexpected appearance of the angel frightened Zechariah. He was alone in the Holy Place. This was the first time he had ever experienced an angel’s vision. So, the angel comforted him by saying: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard.”
Whenever there was a divine vision, we see the phrase, “Do not be afraid” in the Bible because of the fear of the visionaries. When the Risen Lord appeared to his apostles, despite their familiarity with Jesus, the sudden sight of the Lord terrified them (Lk 24:36). Other such instances were: Abraham’s vision of God (Gen 15:1), Joshua’s vision (Josh 1:9), Daniel’s vision (Dan 10:12, 19), the Angel Gabriel’s appearance to Mary (Lk 1:30), and the angels announcing the birth of the Christ child to the shepherds (Lk 2:10).
Why did an angel from the Lord communicate beforehand that Zechariah and Elizabeth would have a child? God could have given them the child without this message. However, God wanted to reveal beforehand that He was sending this child with a special mission. Elizabeth’s conceiving well past the childbearing age was a sign of divine intervention. The angel’s communication assured John’s parents that God was not punishing them but was testing their fidelity to Him.
A pre-named child of God
The Angel Gabriel revealed to Zachariah the name of this special child to be born. The Jews name a child on the eighth day after birth during circumcision. The child’s father names the child according to the names of the forefathers in the family, declaring that the child was his beloved one. Here we see an exception. The angel announced that the child would be a male and that Zechariah had to name him John. God named the child before his conception. Instead of the human father, the Divine Father named him, making him His special child born of human parents.
The name of a person expresses his personality. The name John means “Yahweh has shown favour.” This ‘favour’ was not just for Zechariah and Elizabeth at an unusual time, but also for all humanity because John was the forerunner of the long-awaited Messiah.
(14) “He will bring joy and gladness to you and many will rejoice at his birth. (15) This son of yours will be great in the eyes of the Lord. Listen: he shall never drink wine or strong drink, he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb.”
The joy and gladness of the parents at the child’s birth was very much natural because it was their (impossible) dream come true! The angel’s words, “he will be great in the sight of the Lord” and John’s special role as the forerunner of the Messiah heightened their joy. Many would, of course, rejoice with these elderly parents at his birth. The angel’s words were to prove prophetic.
Like some exceptional people of the past, John consecrated himself for the service of the Lord and accepted the Nazirite vow (Num 6:2). Nazirites abstained from drinking wine or any alcoholic items (Num 6:3-4). They did not cut their hair (Num 6:5) and did not touch corpses, even of their parents (Num 6:7). Examples of such Biblical characters are Samson (Judg 13:4-5) and Samuel (1 Sam 1:11).
The angel also prophesied that the Holy Spirit would come over John even from his mother’s womb. We later read in Luke’s gospel, “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leapt in her womb. Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit” (Lk 1:41).
(16) “He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. (17) He himself will open the way to the Lord with the spirit and power of the Prophet Elijah; he will reconcile fathers and children, and lead the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, in order to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”
Because of John’s preaching, many sinners repented and turned towards God. John helped them wash away their inequities through baptism in the River Jordan. Malachi’s prophecy is fulfilled in John: “Now, I am sending my messenger ahead of me to clear the way; then suddenly the LORD for whom you long will enter the sanctuary” (Mal 3:1). Malachi continued, “Now I am sending to you Elijah the prophet before the day of the Lord comes, the great and terrible day. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the hearts of children to their parents, lest I come and strike the land with a curse” (Mal 3:23-24). The angel said that this child to be born would be the second coming of Elijah as Malachi prophesied.
(18) Zechariah said to the angel, “How can I believe this? I am an old man and my wife is getting on in years.” (19) The angel replied, “I am Gabriel, who stands before God, and I have been sent to speak to you and bring you this good news! (20) But because you have not believed my words, which will come true at the proper time, you will be mute and unable to speak until this has happened.”
Zechariah’s unbelief was natural. In a comparable situation, when Mary expressed her doubt in Luke 1:34, the angel praised and reassured her (Lk 1:35-37). Zechariah’s doubt incurred punishment for himself from the angel. However, his muteness was more a divine sign than a punishment. It became a proof of divine intervention for the people who were waiting outside the Holy Place, for Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth, and their neighbours. Without this sign, they would have doubted Zechariah’s claim of a vision and the angel’s promise of a child. Zechariah’s muteness lasted only over nine months. As promised, God relieved him from it when he fulfilled God’s command to name the child.