There is a scene in the larger Christmas story that is implied, but not described. That’s a good thing, because it was private, but it’s a moment that reminds me of the flesh and blood reality of Advent and Christmas. An old Jewish priest named Zechariah was chosen by lot to serve in the Temple by burning incense. While he was in there, alone, he encountered the angel Gabriel. Gabriel announced that Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, would have a son, and that son would be John, who would prepare the way for the Messiah. Zechariah asked for evidence, given that he and his wife were well past the years when they expected babies. It may be that he demanded evidence, rather than asked, because Gabriel’s response is stern, and rebukes Zechariah for his unbelief. The consequence was that Zechariah’s voice was put in time out until the baby was born. Everything was going to come to pass as Gabriel had said, but Zechariah would not be able to verbally tell anyone what had happened in the Temple. He emerged in silence, clearly having had some sort of vision, but only able to gesture to the gathered worshipers to try and communicate.
What happened next is what captures my imagination. Zechariah finished his time of service at the Temple and went home to Elizabeth. The New International Version of the Bible says, “After this his wife became pregnant…” (Luke 1:24). Though she would soon be visited by a pregnant virgin, Elizabeth became pregnant in the typical way. So, sometime after her now-silent husband returned, the ordinary sex life of a faithful, elderly couple intersected with the prophecy of an angel and the creation of John the Baptist, who would prepare the way for Jesus. I’m struck by the mixture of everyday life and the work of God. Elizabeth and Zechariah were old, but had no children. They had probably been married for decades. Months and years of hoping for a baby in a culture that paired a woman’s worth with her fertility had so far brought nothing – no pregnancy that we know of, no baby. What had they endured in those years? How many times had their hopes been raised, only to be dashed again? What had people whispered about them? What well-meaning but ridiculous advice had their family and friends given? How did Elizabeth and Zechariah work out sex between them in the midst of all that? However they had worked it out, over all those years, into that came this angelic pronouncement: Elizabeth was going to have a son.
Do you imagine that Zechariah told Elizabeth what Gabriel told him? As he walked home, probably over multiple days, how did he decide whether or not to tell her? The Bible describes the couple as, “righteous,” living out God’s commands “blamelessly.” One of the things I take this to mean is that Zechariah was a loving husband. So, how did that play out as he approached his house, and his wife? They lived in a culture and time of quite distinct roles for men and women. He may have wanted to protect her from another disappointment. He may have been bursting with the news, unable to keep it to himself. And yet, if he was going to tell her, how was he going to tell her, given his silence? If he did tell her, what could that possibly have been like for her, after years of hoping for a baby, and then menopause, very reasonably ending those hopes? What was it like as they reached for one another, in the swirl of all of that?
No matter what all the answers to those questions are, at some time “after this,” Zechariah and Elizabeth both had before them the evidence of the truth of Gabriel’s message. Elizabeth was pregnant. Perhaps in fear that it was too good to be true, perhaps in awe at this wondrous gift from God, Elizabeth kept to herself and their house for five months. I’d like to return to her response a bit later this week. What I am especially mindful of as I consider their story now is that their part was to do the next, normal, human thing. God’s part was to provide the unseen, and in their case, truly the miraculous. Again, I shake my head at the mixture of everyday life and the work of God.
I wonder what resides in the, “after this,” moments of our ordinary lives in this season. After what do we find ourselves? After getting married, after losing a parent, after moving, after the first child ventures out in the world. I wonder if there are places in our lives where we have given up hope, in which God would have us hope again. I wonder if there are places in our lives where it is time to give up hoping in ourselves or other human beings, and place our hope in God. Whatever those places are, there are normal, everyday life things ahead of us to do. They all matter. Elizabeth and Zechariah’s sex life. The way we eat today. The 12-year-old’s birthday celebration. The eye contact with the person we’ve hurt, or who has hurt us. The next diaper change. The car line at school. The next time we pick up our phones. The way we handle being single, or widowed, or married, or divorced.
Most of us have not been given a promise as specific as Zechariah and Elizabeth. We do not know the outcome of either God’s silent, invisible work, or our next human thing to do. Sometimes that not knowing grows the frustration and longing through which we wait in Advent. Perhaps the hope of Advent is that the way we live next will be woven together with all the unseen movements of a God who loves us.