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Annunciation First Sunday

Season of Annunciation

First Sunday: Luke 1:5-25
THE ANNOUNCEMENT OF JOHN THE BAPTIST’S BIRTH

INTRODUCTION

Zechariah and Elizabeth were childless for a long time. The society humiliated them, considering it as God’s punishment. However, they remained faithful to the Lord and served God and His people. Though childlessness could be a reason for divorce, Zechariah did not attempt that. After testing their faith, the Lord favored them with a son who became the forerunner of the Messiah. Those who had humiliated Zechariah and Elizabeth later honored them because of their son John, who introduced the Messiah to the world. Let us also keep up our faith and do acts of charity amid our unanswered requests to God.

BIBLE TEXT

(Luke 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.” (21) Meanwhile the people waited for Zechariah, and they were surprised that he delayed so long in the sanctuary. (22) When he finally appeared, he could not speak to them and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He remained dumb and made signs to them. (23) When his time of service was completed, Zechariah returned home (24) and sometime later Elizabeth became pregnant. For five months she kept to herself, remaining at home, and saying, (25) “This is what the Lord has done for me. In these days God has shown me favor and taken away my shame.”

INTERPRETATION

The Prehistory of Jesus

Just as Abraham, the father of the faithful, has a prehistory described in Genesis chapters 1-11, Jesus the savior of all, also has a prehistory that the New Testament gives. Luke provides it more than the other evangelists:
(1) The announcement of John the Baptist’s birth (Luke 1:5-25).
(2) Angel Gabriel announcing Jesus Christ’s birth (Luke 1:26-38).
(3) Mary’s visit to Elizabeth (Luke1:39-45).
(4) The Canticle of Mary (Luke 1:46-56).
(5) The birth of John (Luke 1:57-66).
(6) The Canticle of Zechariah (Luke 1: 67-80).

Matthew starts his gospel with the genealogy of Jesus tracing from Abraham, the father of faith to King David, and then to Joseph, the husband of Mary (Matthew 1:1-17). God made a covenant with Abraham and David and promised them that the savior of the world would come from their lineage. Luke gives another genealogy from Mary’s side (Luke 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 through Adam. God had promised him a savior of the world after the fall of the first parents (Genesis 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 B.C. – 4 B.C.). However, the Jews could not accept him as their king because he was not from King David’s lineage. Herod’s father was an Idumean Antipater, a non-Jew. Only a David’s descendant could become an acceptable King of the Jews.

Herod was afraid when he heard from the Magi that a religiously acceptable king was born for the Jews. Since he could not identify the Infant King, he ordered to kill all children below two years of age in and around Bethlehem, causing the Holy Family’s escape to Egypt and life there for few months as refugees.

Zechariah belonging to the priestly clan of Abijah
Just as God blessed David’s family to have the kings of Jews including the promised Messiah descend from it, so too God blessed Aaron’s family to have priests and High Priests derive from it. Every direct descendant of Aaron was a member of the Levitical priesthood. Since there were many priests by birthright, King David divided them into 24 sections. Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, was from Abijah’s division, the eighth of these 24 sections (1 Chronicle 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 from their own 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 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 St. James, Mary, the mother of Jesus was also born late to her parents, Joachim and Anne.

(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 selected a few by lot, which they considered as God’s choice. Many would not get this opportunity. By God’s providence, Zechariah had the chance to incense at the Holy Place in the Temple.

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 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. Zachariah was here when the Angel of the Lord appeared to him.

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.

The Angel of the Lord’s name was Gabriel. The Bible specifies Gabriel’s appearance at three occasions. The first was to Daniel (Daniel 8:16) to interpret his dream, the second was to Zechariah (Luke 1:19), and the third was to Mary (Luke 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 on the right of the altar of incense frightened Zechariah. He was alone in the Holy Place. This was the first time he 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 (Luke 24:36). Other such instances were: Abraham’s vision of God (Gen 15:1), Joshua’s vision (Joshua 1:9), Daniel’s vision (Daniel 10:12, 19), Angel Gabriel’s appearance to Mary (Luke 1:30), and the Angel of the Lord’s message to the shepherds (Luke 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. The delay in John’s birth to the parents and his birth at an impossible time 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 favor.” This favor 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 angel assured joy and gladness to the parents at the child’s birth, which was natural because it was their dream come true when it was impossible. 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 rejoice with these elderly parents at his birth. The angel’s words were like a prophecy come true.

Like some exceptional people of the past, John consecrated himself for the service of the Lord and accepted the Nazirite vow (Numbers 6:2). Nazirites abstained from drinking wine or any alcoholic items (Numbers 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 (Judges 13:4–5) and Samuel (1 Samuel 1:11) 

The angel’s another prophecy was 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.” (Luke 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 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.” (Malachi 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.” (Malachi 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 (Luke 1:35-37). Zechariah’s doubt brought a punishment from the angel. However, his muteness was a divine sign than a punishment. It became a proof of divine intervention for the people who were waiting outside the Holy Place, for Zachariah’s wife Elizabeth, and for their neighbors. 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.

(21) Meanwhile the people waited for Zechariah, and they were surprised that he delayed so long in the sanctuary. (22) When he finally appeared, he could not speak to them and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He remained dumb and made signs to them.

Zechariah stayed unusually long in the Holy Place for incensing. So people guessed something supernatural was happening inside. Zachariah, who could talk before he entered the Temple, came out dumb. Since his attempts to talk failed, he realized the truthfulness of the angel. So, he used signs to communicate to the people.

According to the Old Testament, it is the Lord who gives mouth and makes one dumb or deaf (Exodus 4:11). God once made Prophet Ezekiel mute (Ezekiel 3:26) because Israel was rebellious and ignored his message. When they became receptive, God restored his speech (Ezekiel 24:27; 33:22) after seven years. Similarly, Zachariah lost his speech when he expressed disbelief, and regained it when he obeyed the angel’s request to name the child.

(23) When his time of service was completed, Zechariah returned home (24) and sometime later Elizabeth became pregnant. For five months she kept to herself, remaining at home, and saying, (25) “This is what the Lord has done for me. In these days God has shown me favor and taken away my shame.”

The scripture is clear that Elizabeth conceived only after Zechariah’s vision of the angel. Elizabeth believed Zechariah because of his muteness when he returned from the Temple. She also expressed her gratitude to God. Elizabeth went into seclusion to avoid disgrace from the public that she had conceived a child in her old age. She was also happy that even at an advanced age, God took away her shame of childlessness and gave her a child who “will open the way to the Lord with the spirit and power of the Prophet Elijah.” (Luke 1:17).

MESSAGE 

1. Marrying from one’s own religion and tribe was the practice of the Israelites because that helped them to keep their covenantal relationship with God and their tribal heritage. King Solomon’s failure was that he worshiped the gods of his pagan wives. We should give importance to keeping our faith and valuable traditions.

2. Zechariah and Elizabeth did not give up their faith, although they were childless, and the society humiliated them. They remained faithful to the Lord and served God and His people. Though Zechariah knew that Elizabeth was barren, he did not divorce or dishonor her. The Lord, after testing their faith, rewarded them with a son who became the forerunner of the Messiah. Thus, people blessed, honored, and remembered the parents through this special son born at an unexpected time. Let us also keep up our faith amid our unanswered prayer requests to God.

3. We do not know God’s timing. Let us wait for the Lord to act on us. So, Jesus taught us to pray “Thy will be done.” All we need to do is obey “all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly” as Zechariah and Elizabeth did.

4. Like God sent John with a mission in this world, God has designed a purpose for our lives. Our success lies in finding and fulfilling our God-given role in the family and in the society.

5. Despite the punishment and shame, Zechariah and Elizabeth trusted and cooperated with God. That led them to joy and gladness as the angel foretold. We also might feel like God punishes the righteous. In such circumstances, let us realize that God has a better plan for us and others.

6. Societal expectations and opinions pressure us to turn away from God or to criticize Christ’s Church and his representatives. We should be firm to follow God’s providence despite humiliations. Noah’s story is an example. He differed from the ordinary people who were sinners. God’s directions to make a ship on a dry land saved his family. His contemporaries ridiculed him. However, the public realized only later that they were wrong, and Noah was right.

7. A child is more than the result of parents’ union, because God gives the soul. Zachariah and Elizabeth’s attempts to have a child failed at their reproductive age because God had withheld it for a later stage. It shows that God is the master of life. Let us thank the Lord for the lives of our children and take care of them according to God’s plan.