Zechariah and Holy Silence

by Marina McCoy

Alexandr Ivanov 010

For years, I overlooked the story of Zechariah. I much preferred the story of Mary, whose fiat to the angel Gabriel stood in contrast to Zechariah’s doubt. Mary had passion and faith, while Zechariah seemed uncertain. But over time, I have developed a greater appreciation for him.

Often, Zechariah is presented as a counterexample to Mary’s faith. We might contrast his disbelief when he hears the angel tell him that his wife Elizabeth will bear a son to Mary’s belief in what Gabriel tells her. After all, Gabriel tells Zechariah, “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 proper time” (Luke 1:20).

While at first glance, Gabriel’s words can seem like a punishment, we might also read them as an invitation. The content of the angel’s message is about the fulfillment of God’s word. God’s faith in Zechariah is enough, even when Zechariah’s faith falters. In the time of silence in which Zechariah was unable to speak, something changes within him. While the Scripture does not speak about that time, we are still invited to wonder: what happened between Zechariah and God then? What turned Zechariah from being a person who argued with the angel that he was simply an old man with an old wife, to one who offers a canticle proclaiming praise, salvation, and freedom (Luke 1:68-79)?

In our prayer lives, too, God often speaks most clearly to us in moments when we can quiet our own minds and voices. Words can sometimes be more reflective of my own anxieties and concerns than of God’s action. While prayerful words can be a beautiful mode of communication, they can also be distractions from fully placing myself in God’s hands. Sometimes our words, like Zechariah’s, manifest our own limits. Silence makes room for the fullness of God’s dynamic and healing power.

This Advent, we might also see whether God invites us to enter more deeply into times of silence. In the quiet, God is still at work. God’s power exceeds our own ability to name, to capture, or to control the events in our lives. In entering into silence, we enter more deeply into God’s mystery. Like Zechariah, we learn to trust in God’s transforming power taking place in the as-yet-unknown.

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Marina McCoy is an associate professor of philosophy at Boston College, where she teaches philosophy and in the BC PULSE service learning program. She is the author of Wounded Heroes: Vulnerability as a Virtue in Ancient Greek Philosophy (Oxford University Press, 2013). She and her husband are the parents to two teenagers and live in the Boston area.

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December 10, 2013

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Jean December 10, 2013 at 10:30 am

I found myself nodding as I read this, thinking “yes” and “yes” and “yes”. Silence is often misinterpreted as having nothing to say, or being afraid to speak, but as you put it so well, it can be a time of active listening, receiving and growth. A refreshingly different message than the one we receive from secular society at this time of year. Much appreciated!


Marina December 10, 2013 at 10:43 am

Thanks, and peace!


Andy Otto December 11, 2013 at 12:15 pm

I love it. Silence can truly be healing. However, I struggle with the comparison to Mary’s encounter with Gabriel. She also says, “How can this be?” when the angel says she will get pregnant without relations with a man. And who wouldn’t wonder like her? I’ve never been satisfied with the answer that somehow Zechariah’s questioning was about a lack of faith and that Mary’s wasn’t.


Marina December 11, 2013 at 6:04 pm

That makes sense to me, a lot of sense. Mary’s wondering, then, is also a mystery into which to enter. Thanks for sharing that insight.


WriterLinda (Linda G) December 12, 2013 at 11:46 am

He asked a show me first question (how will I know, I think it was) whereas she just said how can this be. He wanted proof ahead of time. Mary just wondered how she could be pregnant without the usual method.


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