An Advent Reflection on Luke 1

Our family has a Tradition of celebrating Advent and the Nativity that’s rooted in my childhood. On this particular Advent Sunday, in this pandemic diaspora with a couple of my offspring sheltering in their own places, we will still light a candle for Peace that also celebrates the Annunciation. That traditional word refers to two Holy Announcements in Luke chapter 1, that take up 80 verses!  In the Annunciation story, I’m reminded that the unexpected is no surprise to God, and that we can actually enter into God’s great expectancy and anticipation.

I am grateful for the ancient stories and humbly confess this Bible bias: I ascribe to the people in these stories characteristics that allow for them to be, like you and me at our best, thoughtful, faithful, reasonable human beings. As I immerse myself in their stories, I relate to many of them as friends.

Their lives resemble mine, and ours. There’s the heartbreak of infertility and the surprise of unplanned pregnancy.  There’s a gap between the wealthy and the poor. There is political unrest and fear. There’s health and vitality, disease and suffering, living too long, and dying too soon. These biblical friends are also God’s grace to me, who remind me The Lord is with me.

As we turn to the text, I Pray: Holy Spirit, sanctify us; our intentions, thoughts, emotions and our imaginations, that we may enter into your great story and experience your grace and peace. And give glory to God in the Highest. Amen.

Luke 1  

Opening the pages to his account of the Advent of the Christ, Luke wrote: So that we may know the Truth concerning the things about which we have been instructed. 

With a great start to his storytelling Luke offers in four sentences the date, the setting, the main characters and their dilemma: 

In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments.But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.  (NRSV vs.5-7)

An Imaginative Reflection

Zechariah-the-priest was at the Temple, just doing his job (vs. 8-14).   His work was well regulated, they even had a policy and procedure manual.  He won the coin toss for incense offering that day.  It may have been his first time, or not, but this was holy work and the whole crew was trained in what to do and how to do it.  Zachariah was not planning on having a vision. There was no policy that covered Angels appearing. 

And yet, the Angel’s news was good:

  • Your prayer has been heard 
  • You’ll have a son
  • You’ll have joy and gladness. 
  • Many will rejoice with you

Zechariah is terrified. I understand.  For one thing, there is the Angel in front of him, telling him to NOT be afraid. But he was afraid:   It was so unexpected.    So overwhelming.  Zechariah can hardly get the words out to ask, but he had to ask: How will I know that this is so?  (vs. 18)

In his normal everyday predictable life, Zechariah is suddenly assured his prayer was heard; though he is afraid and even disbelieving, God has overwhelming good in mind for him.

The Angel (vs. 19-23) was just doing his job.   He was glad to bear the message of God’s joy spilling into the world. God had heard Zechariah’s prayer and Elizabeth’s lament. God chose to bless this righteous couple, and even named the baby before he was born, John, Beloved of God.   The Angel dealt with Zachariah’s initial shock and terror, explained the feeding and operating instructions, and the pre-natal anointing of the Spirit.  He even described the baby’s future vocation—a Prophet like Elijah, to prepare Israel. 

But Zechariah was bewildered, he simply could not believe it.  Now I imagine the Angel knew that for Zachariah, finding words to explain this experience was going to be impossible. Given the political climate, talking about it might even be dangerous. 

Merciful Silence

I don’t think the Angel was annoyed with Zechariah.  I don’t think there was any angel ego involved.  Zach’s disbelief just required disclosure, authentication, assurance. So the angel showed his badge, offered his credentials: I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. (v.19)

Zechariah’s confusion and fear also required compassion.  Perhaps it was a severe mercy, but I believe it was mercy and a grace, to make Zechariah UN-able to speak.

Speechless, Zechariah would not have to explain what he could not understand. In the mercy of silence, he could feel and pray and wonder, suspend and relinquish what he thought he knew.  In wordless mystery, Zechariah was accessible to the More of God that can never be apprehended through reason or argument, but only received in Love.  In silence, in speechlessness, you can hear the heartbeat of God and Love moves in.   Love took Zechariah home, took him home to his wife.

I imagine the gossip moved fast in that neighborhood, and there were those at the Temple who assumed they knew, who left Jerusalem and travelled his road before Zechariah even got off work. So, more than likely, Elizabeth had heard.

When his time of service at the Temple ended (vs.23), Zechariah went home. It must have been a consolation to him to see Elizabeth waiting for him.  Here was the wife of his youth, his bride: she was good to him and kind.  And wise.  They had been married long enough that His wordlessness was not a hindrance for them.

Given the gossip, Elizabeth was relieved to see him walking up the path to her. She met him with fresh water. A meal was already prepared. Elizabeth dismissed the servant and served him herself. In time, he would find a way to let her know what happened.  For her it was enough that, right now he looked at her with gratitude and wonder.    She knew he would want to bathe and change into clean clothes, that he would finally drop his exhausted body onto his couch and sleep.

I imagine it surprised her that after washing up, Zechariah dressed, anointed himself like a bridegroom, came to her, gathered her into his arms. And wept.

After those days Elizabeth conceived. (vs.24) I tiptoe into this passage, not wanting to disturb them, these old lovers.  At the same time, I am in awe of God’s persistence, Divine desiring and longing Love, choosing to conceive through mortal human bodies the hope and seed of his plan to bless and to dwell with us.

And for five months Elizabeth remained in seclusion. In seclusion, in silence, Elizabeth could hear the heartbeat of God. And in her Love grew.

Wonder and Consent

Again, Luke is the master storyteller (vs.26-27). There is so much detail packed into these verses: 

In the 6th month (of Elizabeth’s pregnancy)

The angel Gabriel was sent by God

To a town in Galilee, called Nazareth

To a virgin engaged

to a man named Joseph, of the house of David.

The virgin’s name was Mary.

Timing, plans, persons, places all had to line up before Gabriel was sent.  God is good at details.  Though I am often overwhelmed and sometimes underwhelmed by all the details of my life, that’s where God is good, all the time. God is in the details.

So, Gabriel was on the road again (vs.28-32).  Heaven and earth had been preparing since the dawn of time. Even stars had to line up for this message.  Gabriel found Mary. As gently as he could he said, “Greetings, favored one. The Lord is with you.” But his enthusiasm was so bright and she was perplexed. Gabriel softened, started again, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”   Gabriel radiated Heaven’s Peace and let her rest in that, in the knowledge that she was with-God, favored.

Gabriel did not press her. He waited for the adrenaline to subside, for her anxiety to ease, and watched her fill with awe and wonder. He knew that in the course of time Mary would need to return to this moment over and over, to recall every detail that her senses could register. As God’s work with her progressed, this living memory would sustain her through all that would come. Throughout Jesus birth, life, ministry, death and resurrection, she would need to recall and know the Lord is with her. 

Gabriel paused as Mary worked through her bewilderment. And now, he said—that was all the preamble he gave to this part: And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. (vs.31)

It wasn’t without her consent that Jesus was to be born of Mary. Out of reverence and respect for the human being, God waits for our response.  

Thus, there were preliminaries. She had to be informed.  What trauma may have ensued if Mary had not been consulted, if she had no choice but suddenly found herself host to an immaculate conception, even if it was the hope of Israel.

She grasped at least the first part of Gabriel’s message: about conceive in your womb and bear a son.   Mary was not completely naïve, nor was she ignorant of how these things work, normally. She didn’t seem to disbelieve that it would happen, only she was wondering how it could happen: “How can this be?” (vs 34)

I know I have asked that question of God. How is a good prayer.  It’s okay to ask, to confide, to confess, “Lord, How? I don’t know how… to navigate this, to be in these circumstances, to understand.” We want God to be clear with us. So we ask.

Mary asked. And Gabriel was not evasive, did not say, “wait and see.” He answered her question and told her how. He kept talking. She kept listening. He told her about Elizabeth—did he know that even under normal circumstances, women need women? that Mary could know she isn’t alone. there was one other woman who would get it? And then Gabriel offers his final assurance to her: For nothing will be impossible with God. (vs.37):

You’ll see these words in Jesus’ teaching in Luke 18:26. My guess is Jesus heard his mother say it more than once: What’s impossible for mortals is possible for God

So, Mary: The Lord is with you. Elizabeth is in on it. Nothing’s impossible with God. God awaits your consent.  Mary said Yes:  Here I am, let it be with me according to your word.

Mary almost immediately went to Elizabeth.   Elizabeth blessed her:  Blessed is she who believed, there will be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.  (vs. 39-45)

Mary burst into song from an ancient hymn, my soul magnifies the Lord. and I imagine by the time she got to the second verse Elizabeth joined in. A remix of a golden oldie from Hannah’s song in I Samuel, it’s not a sentimental piece.  It’s personal, and political, and reveres the God with whom they were consenting and collaborating: 

The Mighty One. Holy is His Name.  Mercy, strength, power, a personal helper and promise keeper, closing the gap between the powerful and the lowly, between the rich and the poor.  Whose mercy is from generation to generation.  (vs.46-50)

It was for the sake of families and nations and all the generations that they sang. with the hope that their children would bring Peace.

Reading the abbreviated account of Elizabeth’s labor, the birth of her son (vs. 57), I know this was written by a man. There’s no details, not one word about the birth suite, breathing or walking, how many hours, who attended, how long did she push. Does he look like his dad?

After 8 days, it was good and right for neighbors and relatives to rejoice with her.  But I feel the encroachment of people trespassing onto their secluded sacred space.   Since Zechariah couldn’t speak, others presumed. Self-important experts in Sabbath clothes, all law and order, gathering around their baby. 

Zechariah was in the room (vs. 63-75). There must’ve been some tension in him, some mixed emotions as he stood there unable to speak, being treated as if he wasn’t there, or couldn’t hear. He was only mute, not stupid.   I wonder if he was partly amused at the presumption of those who were running the show.       

Elizabeth was handling it well; following the tradition, she stood a little apart from the men and her child, but not too far.

Until. They were going to name him Zach.Jr. !? That’s when Elizabeth stepped in. No, she said, with some authority. And then more diplomatically she used the passive tense, and said, “he is to be called John.” As if it were a pet name, “he is to be called John.”

The experts disapproved.  They weren’t taking her word for it. They finally looked to the mute Zechariah, motioning to him—as if they were as mute as he was—what did he think. Zechariah’s eyes met Elizabeth’s, a little color coming to her cheeks, so pretty. He took the writing tablet and with a firm and steady hand, he wrote it large so they could see and know: “His name IS John.”

Zechariah held his son, and pulled his wife in next to him.  All that the angel had told him had come to pass.  His prayers had been heard, his wife did conceive and bear him this son and many rejoiced at his birth. 

What began at first as a horror and a shame, after all those weeks and months of silence, had turned into a refuge, a sanctuary, and a healing balm.  I think he felt it more than heard it:  Don’t be afraid. Be amazed. This moment was one of overwhelming grace and joy, and his heart was full; fear and doubt finally evaporated. 

In that instant his tongue was freed.  With his first words, Zachariah blessed God.  God’s mercy, God’s nearness, God’s reliability.  The words poured out of him, a song to the God of his heart.  No longer mute, he did not stutter or falter. Grace and Love and Awe welled up in him and came out in proclamation and prayer. When faith arrives, it arrives filled with the Holy Spirit, and the right words: Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, and grant that we might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness all our days. (vs.74-75)

Then, Zechariah, lifted his son, like in Roots Kunta Kinte style, and spoke prophetic words And you, child, will be called prophet of the Most High God. (vs.76-80)  Zechariah, as priest, was a mediator for the people and God.  His son, John, the Baptizing Prophet, would be a voice for God in the wilderness. Zechariah’s words over John describe the way we are called to with-God lives as prophetic witnesses in our world today:

To give knowledge of salvation and the forgiveness of sins

To live under the tender mercy of our God

To reflect the dawn of the Most High

To give Light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadows of death

To guide their feet into the way of peace.

Which is the Way of Jesus, the Prince of Peace.

There are for me 10 points in the highlights reel of this imaginative reflection, 6 regarding my relationship with God and 4 on my response to God.

Regarding God:

  1. Amidst normal everyday routines of life, keep praying, God hears.
  2. God has overwhelming good in mind for me in spite of fear/disbelief.
  3. In solitude and silence, you can hear the heartbeat of God. 
  4. God respectfully waits for our consent to draw close, for intimacy.
  5. How is a good prayer because God is good at details.
  6. Nothing is impossible with God.

Regarding my response to God:

  1. Sing, that all children might know Peace.
  2. Don’t be afraid. Be amazed.
  3. Serve God without fear, in holiness and righteousness. 
  4. live as God’s prophetic witness to our world today guiding others into the ways of peace. Which is the Way of Jesus, the Prince of Peace

So, we keep the family traditions that are useful to us, make our preparations and wait through the Advent of our days.  In fellowship with Zechariah and Elizabeth, with Mary and the risen Christ who dwells with us and in us, we are becoming like Jesus the Light of Peace for others to Live by—which has been the aim of God throughout history:

…  the creation of an all-inclusive community of loving persons, with God included in that community as its prime sustainer and most glorious inhabitant.” Dallas Willard.