Before we leave Gabriel’s annunciation to Zechariah, certain questions must be answered. Why did Zechariah who is described as “observing all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly” not accept the words of Gabriel? While no definitive answer can be given, it would appear that he adopted a type of legalistic spirituality which focused on careful observance, down to the minutest detail, of the precepts of the law. This was prominent in the tradition of the Pharisees.
But true faith moves beyond such an approach, it emphasizes clinging to the Lord for one’s support, security and spiritual growth: “Unless your faith is firm, you shall not be firm” (Isa 7: 9).
It would be an anachronism to say that Zechariah was a child of the Enlightenment, demanding proof. Such, in a way, seems natural. Even St. Augustine in his “Confessions” noted: “I wished to be made just as certain of things, as I was certain that seven and three are ten.” We must never forget, however, that true faith does not offer proof. It always demands greater trust.
I had grasped God’s garment in the void
but my hand slipped
on the rich silk of it.
The “everlasting arms” my sister loved to remember
must have upheld my leaden weight
from falling, even so,
for though I claw at empty air and feel
nothing, no embrace,
I have not plummeted.
Finally, Gabriel indicates one of the essential but overlooked elements that is necessary to enter more deeply into the redemptive mystery--silence.
How silently, how silently,
The wondrous gift is given;
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of his heaven
No ear may hear his coming...
(“O Little Town of Bethlehem”)
Part of the ascetic of Advent for all of us is to reflect upon and enflesh the words of the psalmist: “Be still before the Lord” (Ps 37:7).
Perhaps another part of the birth of Christ narratives might lead us to a deeper appreciation of the role of silence in our spiritual strivings, namely the journey of the Wise Men. Theirs was a silent annunciation but they understood its meaning: “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage” (Mt 2:2) How did they come to believe this truth?
Explorers of the interior life often focus upon what they call the inner Word--the activity of the Spirit working in the deepest part of our deepest selves. And to be alert and sensitive to such workings we need an inner quiet and silence. (I believe it was such alertness which would have led to Elizabeth’s conviction about the birth of John the Baptist.)
At any rate, by God’s grace, in the quiet of their hearts, the Wise Men heard the “good news” of the birth of Christ. And they began their journey. One must not underestimate the hardships they encountered. But theirs was a trust in the providential care of God. Ultimately, they were rewarded with being memorialized as being an intrinsic part of the birth narratives. We must never forget, however, that their journey to Bethlehem began in silence and alertness to the promptings of God. Two thousand years later, we must learn to imitate them.
As often happens, the description of the Wise Men’s journey has one puzzling point. Why did they lose sight of the star?
Admittedly, we are in the realm of speculation. But since this is an integral part of their story, we must try to provide an answer. I would suggest that having arrived at Jerusalem; they began to turn their attention to more mundane concerns, i.e. gathering supplies for the return journey, etc. Quite simply, they took their eyes off the Light and began to focus on self. And sometimes, though for different reasons, we tend to do the same.
Msgr. McDonnell is a senior priest of the archdiocese and is in residence at St. Mary Parish, Dedham.