Zechariah and Holy Silence

 Zechariah and Gabriel - Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Image by Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

About Marina McCoy 64 Articles
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 young adults and live in the Boston area.
Contact: Website

14 Comments on Zechariah and Holy Silence

  1. Insightful article, thanks for posting! There are many thoughts within, and we choose which of them to give a voice to every time we speak. Sometimes, like with music, what is not said (or played) is as important as what is. The power of speech is one of the gifts that reflect God’s image in us as a unique creation. Jesus said every idle word will be judged.

  2. I am not clever enough to discern the difference between Mary’s response and Zechariah’s response to Gabriel. Neither sounded doubting in my view. If we except that two ‘normal’ individuals are visited with news from God by an angel, isn’t it fair to think they might ask a question, as both did? How would you feel and think if you were awakened tonight with similar statements? Wouldn’t you at least be curious?

    • I was so glad to have this same response by a few people. I’ve been uneasy at the continuing teaching that Z. doubted and Mary didn’t. I finally resolved to just accept what I’d been taught as something I couldn’t explain (tho, I have to say, I’m not very good at just giving in). Knowing other people have the same question inspires me to spend more quiet time on the two stories and, perhaps, be able to calm my doubts. Thanks much for all the comments on Z’s story.

  3. Glad you wrote about Zecariah. His canticle is a message not only for John, his son, but for us who believe and follow. Thank you for your perspective. It was refreshing. Peace!

  4. Yes, in the most beautiful of prayers, The Morning Resolve, in the Episcopalian publication Forward Day by Day, it ask for the practice of Holy Silence.

  5. That was beautiful to read. I’ve been trying to calm my mind lately in my prayers, and maybe just sitting in silence, with the Lord is what I need to do. And it also reminds me of the verse which I pray frequently, ‘I believe, help my unbelief.’

  6. 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.

    • 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.

    • Mary’s acceptance is very clear, emphatic. She is only curious to know how the events will roll out. Normal human feelings. But Zechariah has doubts about the miracle – not how it will unfold. So, both the reactions are totally different and cannot be compared

    • Totally agree with you. To me the responses are very similar. I have wondered whether the stature of Mary, born without original sin, made Gabriel hesitate to reprimand as he did to Zechariah. Or maybe Gabriel was told when he came back to be more careful and understanding when he would speak to Mary! Just sayin’!

  7. 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!

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