Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.” Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak.
When my oldest began college at Rochester Institute of Technology, she quickly picked up some sign language. RIT is home for NTID, the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, and boasts a large deaf and hard-of-hearing population. All students are encouraged to learn as much sign language as possible, so when my daughter came home for Thanksgiving she taught us some of what she learned. Her little brothers were eager to learn how to say “scarf,” “cornucopia,” “dinosaur,” “please,” “thank you,” and “more.”
My favorite sign is likely colloquial to RIT. You take the sign for “no”—sort of snapping your first two fingers down onto your thumb, almost like an aggressive bird beak. But for this sign, you draw a circle in the air around the face of someone you’re signing to, and then snap your fingers down in the “no.” It means, roughly, “shut your whole face.”
Whenever I read this scripture about Zechariah and the angel, I picture the angel making this sign around Zechariah’s face. And, because Gabriel is an angel and not just a feisty old mama crone, it actually had power behind it. Zechariah shut his whole face, for roughly nine months. When Mary came to greet Elizabeth, and John leapt in Elizabeth’s womb for joy, and they embraced and cried and exclaimed and got all magnificatty in their saintly holy chatty wisdom, Zechariah could just stand there (or maybe lie there in the other room trying to sleep—I always picture Mary’s arrival in the dead of night), mute. Quiet.
All shut up.
Kristen invited me—and you—to find the bits of light that come this season and pay attention to what they illuminate. We talk about these challenges ahead of time, and when she suggested it to me it seemed like a good and fitting idea for Advent. But I admit that since December began, those bits of light feel distant and blurry. The holidays are always challenging in a family like ours that relies heavily on routine, and this year we have had a good deal of loss weighing us down as well. Add to that my current feelings of religious homelessness, and I’m not feeling saintly, holy, chatty, or wise.
In previous sessions of Lectio Divina I’ve enjoyed picturing myself as Elizabeth, or Mary, or the old family hound lying by the fire when Mary enters. Women are rarely the center of positive attention in the Bible, so I like to linger on the scene when I can. This year, though? This year I’m feeling very Zechariah. I think if I’m going to find those points of light in the dark, if I’m going to be able to find wonder in new life, in revelations spoken by angels, in stars in the sky, I’m first going to have to shut my whole face–and listen.