Judges 13:2-7, 24-25a
Then Zechariah said to the angel, "How shall I know this? For I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years." Luke 1:18
For those of us who like the Christmas narratives in the Gospels, this account of the Archangel Gabriel bringing the Good News to Zachariah while he was doing his duty in the Sanctuary of the Temple is well known to us. It always bothered me a bit that this good and holy man, Zachariah, seemed to have been punished harshly for his question to the Archangel Gabriel after being told that he was to be a father in his old age. He said: "How shall I know this? For I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years." (Luke 1:18) Most of us, I think, would have asked the same question, maybe even having a stronger reaction to such an announcement. As we continue reading the account, Zachariah is punished for his lack of faith by being made speechless immediately. He remained so until after the birth of his son, John the Baptist.
Tomorrow’s Gospel account will be the annunciation to Mary by this same Archangel that she was to be the Mother of God. Her response is this: "How can this be since I have no relations with a man?" It seems that she, too, had a similar reaction to Zachariah’s. It was this confusion that led me to compare these two very similar accounts.
Zachariah was an older man, having lived a full life with his wife Elizabeth. They were a much respected family, but they had no children and this was an embarrassment for them. But, as the Scripture tells us, they were "righteous in the eyes of God." Mary, on the other hand, was a very young woman, not yet married. Her life was ahead of her. And yet, she is greeted as "full of grace" having found favor with God.
Zachariah was doing his duty as a priest within the temple, in the most sacred of places, the sanctuary, and Mary was home. Tradition tells us that she was praying. She was probably also doing housework. Both were doing God’s Will and God’s Work, but in two very different settings. God finds us, no matter where we are.
The more I reflected on these two responses: Zachariah’s "How will I know?" and Mary’s "How can this be?" the more I saw a major difference between the two. Zachariah’s response lacked faith. He made himself the judge of what God could and could not do. And the Archangel Gabriel told him so.
On the other hand, Mary’s response showed that she lacked understanding, not faith. Mary never expressed a lack of faith, only a lack of comprehension. When Mary accepted the Archangel’s explanation, she became totally open to God’s invitation to be the Mother of Jesus and the Mother of the Son of God, "Be it done unto me according to your Word." What a difference!
These two accounts help me to deepen my faith in the Word of God, to deepen my faith in a God who loves us so much that we are given a Savior and Redeemer in the person of Jesus. We may grapple with the understanding of this mystery, asking ourselves the same question Mary asked, "How can this be?" Yet, when all is said and done, we too can only say with Mary: "Behold the servant of the Lord! Be it done unto me according to your Word!"
Fr. Clemente Barron, C.P. is stationed in San Antonio, Texas.