September 9, 2015 Length: 12:09
Whether as individuals or as couples we too are each called in the words of Zacharias as set out in the Gospel of St. Luke to “prepare His ways”—that is, to prepare the way of Jesus Christ in our own lives and in the lives of others.
Yesterday we celebrated the life of the father of St. John the Baptist, the Holy Prophet Zacharias. It is right that we should also remember Holy Elizabeth—his wife and the mother of St. John the Baptist. The story of their lives appears in only one chapter of the Gospel, the opening chapter of the Gospel of St. Luke. Zacharias and Elizabeth were two very different people, married for many decades. It is right that we should remember them as a married couple, both of whom were, as St. Luke tells us, “righteous before God.” However, it is also important to understand they were guided to fulfill God’s purposes and to prepare the way for Jesus Christ in different ways.
Children, think about your own family. Don’t say anything, just think about your family. What is your mother like? What is your father like? Do they behave the same way in every situation? Do you choose which parent to ask for something? In most families, the children know which parent is most likely to agree to what the child would like them to do. Mothers and fathers are very different people, aren’t they? They respond differently to the same situation.
That was what happened with Elizabeth and Zachariah. They had been married for a long time; and they did not have any children. They would have liked to have had children, but they didn’t have any. Now in ancient Israel that was a tough situation in which to live, because it was thought then that if you were married and didn’t have children it was some kind of punishment from God. Today we understand that God has different purposes for each of us. Some people are married; others are not married. Some couples have children, others do not have children. Whether we are married or single, whether we have children or do not have children, God loves each of us.
Now, children, as you grow up things may happen which you do not want to happen. I hope you will not receive from your parents everything you want. If as a child you are given everything you would like to have, you will have a lot of problems when you grow up and find out that as an adult you will not receive everything you want. Parents, please, don’t give your children everything they want, because, if you do, you will spoil them rotten. You will not prepare them adequately for the challenge of living as adults when they grow up.
Elizabeth and Zacharias were having a really difficult time in first century Palestine. Everyone thought that God had rejected them and that they were nothing—of no importance to anyone. Lots of people today have many different problems from which they would like to escape. In a delightful book, Getting to Yes with Yourself [& Other Worthy Opponents], William Ury, Co-Founder of the Harvard Negotiation Project, writes: “The present moment, as much as we might feel an aversion to it [that is, an intense dislike of this present moment] . . . is indeed a present [that is, a gift]. We might imagine that we were supposed to get another gift, but the present is what [our gift] is” (p. 110). That is an important lesson we each need to learn, whatever our age: the present, with all its hopes and problems, is God’s personal gift to each of us, girl or boy, woman or man. Then, in prayer, with God’s help, we each decide how to live in the present moment—with hope or sadness, with determination or with despair.
Now, Holy Mary was quite puzzled when the Archangel Gabriel told her that she had conceived a child. So what did the Archangel Gabriel do to convince Holy Mary that everything was OK, and she should trust God? Gabriel responded to the confusion of Holy Mary with the words: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child will be called the Son of God. And behold, Elizabeth your relative has also conceived a son in her old age; and she who was called barren is now in her sixth month. For with God nothing will be impossible.”
Holy Mary’s response to this remarkable news that her relative Elizabeth was pregnant in her old age was two-fold. First, Holy Mary said to Gabriel, “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.” That is a beautiful response, isn’t it? Lord, I trust you even if I do not understand what you are doing in my life. Second, Holy Mary went “with haste” to visit Elizabeth. That was a very sensible thing to do, wasn’t it—for Holy Mary, as young teenager, to go visit an older woman who was having a similar experience—an unexpected birth of a child that seemed to have some important but not fully clear meaning. Mary recognised that the moment had come to seek advice from Elizabeth.
That visit from Holy Mary to Elizabeth was quite a long visit. Holy Mary stayed three months with Elizabeth. They both needed help to understand what was going on, so they turned to God and to each other. They recognized as women that the men did not understand what was going on; and they needed help from each other and from personal prayer. That visit of Holy Mary to Elizabeth is known as The Visitation; and the sixteenth century Italian painter Federico Barocci offers us a beautiful interpretation of that visit in his painting, “The Visitation,” which can be seen at a church in Rome or on the internet if you type the words “Barocci—b-a-r-o-c-c-i” and “The Visitation” into any search engine. It’s a beautiful picture; and notice that the two women are at the centre of the picture. The men are nearby, but not prominent. St. Joseph is carrying the bags; and Zacharias is cautiously looking in from a side door.
You can read this exciting story in the opening chapter of the Gospel of St. Luke. Remember that I mentioned earlier how Elizabeth and Zacharias were two very different people. Elizabeth trusted God, but her husband Zacharias did not, even though an angel visited him. The result was that Elizabeth spent a happy pregnancy with the visit of Holy Mary. However, Zacharias was made mute and could not talk for nine months. It is clear that Zacharias was being punished, because, as the angel told him, “You did not believe my words.”
Clearly, Elizabeth was following God’s will for her life, carrying St. John the Baptist in her womb and being very helpful to Holy Mary. But what was going on with Zacharias? A note in the Orthodox Study Bible on Verse 20 comments: “Zacharias is disciplined for his lack of faith, yet this also serves as proof that Gabriel’s announcement is true.” End of quote. Why? Because Zacharias was serving as the Jewish High Priest at the time of the birth of St. John the Baptist. It was already clear that the King at that time Herod was not a true king; and there had not been a prophet in Israel since Malachi, more than 350 years before the birth of Jesus Christ. Now, the High Priest Zacharias was silenced, so there was no operational king or prophet or priest for Israel. The time was ready for Jesus Christ as the true king and prophet and priest for all of humanity, for all of time. So, Zacharias, was fulfilling a role that God had for him without knowing what he was doing.
Furthermore, Zacharias recognized that his wife was right to name the child John, at which point St. Zacharias gained his voice back—and what a voice with which to prophesy in verses 68 to 79 that this child John would “be called the prophet of the Most High” to “go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways. To give knowledge of salvation to His people by the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God. . . To give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
To conclude, whether as individuals or as couples we too are each called in the words of Zacharias as set out in the Gospel of St. Luke to “prepare His ways”—that is, to prepare the way of Jesus Christ in our own lives and in the lives of others. Often like Elizabeth and Zacharias, we may not know what we are doing. We may not know why it takes so long to conceive a child or why we lack faith even if we see and hear an angel speaking to us. Perhaps at times we can respond with faith, as did St. Elizabeth when she told Holy Mary “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Perhaps it takes us longer to see with St. Zacharias that the Lord is “guiding [all of] our feet into the way of peace.” Slowly, we can gain an understanding that the words of Jesus Christ as set out in the Gospel of St. John, Chapter 14, Verse 6 are true: “I am the way, and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.”
And so we ascribe as is justly due all might, majesty, dominion, power and praise to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, always now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen. Father Emmanuel Kahn