From Resignation to Expectation (Waiting, Part 2)
When Zechariah finishes his silent nine months of this pregnancy, we realize that the rest of Gabriel’s proclamation did, in fact, register. But in the moment, that first statement is all he appears to have heard. While Gabriel delivers God's full message, his proclamation contains too much information. Zechariah seems to find it rather irrelevant to know whom this child is going to be or what this child is going to do. He is reeling at the thought that this child is going to exist. How do we know? By his response to the angel. “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years ” (Lk. 1:18). Read: “Are you suggesting that I go home and bring up the most painful conversation in our marriage after we have finally resigned ourselves to a life without children?”
Resignation doesn’t budge easily. It dismisses hope—especially preposterous hope about an old pain that has been buried for years. While Gabriel’s response is in the form of a rebuke, I think it was truly a mercy. Zechariah was unable to talk to Elizabeth out of his bitterness of soul. The spiritual gift/discipline of nine months of silence rested well on this priest's tongue.
I am well aware as I write this blog that couples struggling with infertility could easily say, “If Zechariah changed his tune, its because his most personal longing was eventually fulfilled.” To those who have lost a job recently, foreclosed on a house, or declared bankruptcy, at least Zechariah was still employed and had a home; no one was going to take away the opportunity to exercise his vocation as priest or look over his shoulder at his every financial move.
And even if our resignations are not so blatant, the same signature of skepticism and despair can so easily shrink our souls. I find myself asking the question, “Is resignation simply the other side of unfulfilled longing’s coin, or might there be a different currency all together? And here is where Zechariah, on the other end of his long silence, has something very significant to say to us.
First, we realize that the angel’s words of powerful hope were planted in his soul, even though he could not acknowledge them in the moment. When Zechariah is given back his speech at John’s circumcision, we get clues to the long, silent healing of his heart. He’s been meditating on Malachi. Zechariah affirms that his child will be the Elijah who will go and prepare the way for the Messiah. On the far side of the four hundred year comma, Zechariah has ingested Gabriel's message deeply and, over time, his soul has shifted from resignation to expectation.
The planted seeds of wise words do not fail to gestate and bear fruit at the proper time. But there’s also a lovely new connection for Zechariah: “because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high…” (Lk 1:78). It sound a lot like internalized Malachi: “the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings (Mal 4:2). Zechariah's soul has had a visitor during his own nine month pregnancy. The fruit of healing now bursts forth from the place where fear and skepticism once reigned.
Is it possible that our defensive posture of soul-shrugging inevitability shoves out our awareness of “the tender mercies of our God?” Could his mercy actually be the other side of the unfilled longing coin? What if we asked for the grace to pray, “Lord, I long for what I do not have, and I do not understand why you do not act on my behalf in this particular way. Nevertheless, I place my trust in your tender mercies, and believe that you ‘rock me and the world in love’ in spite of what I see.”
If we allow ourselves to begin this soul-shifting posture, opening the door to our merciful God, we, too, may begin to experience “light for those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.” Rather than merely existing with our souls paralyzed by the pain of unfulfilled longing, our feet can then be guided “into the way of peace” (Lk. 1:79). Soul peace. Merciful peace. Expectant peace. Blessed Waiting.
Dr. Carla Waterman is a practical theologian who desires to live “near to the altar and close to the ground.” She is a professor at The Robert. E Webber Institute for Worship Studies and Affiliate Professor of Spiritual Formation at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL. Carla is the author of Songs of Assent, and writes a regular blog on her website, http://www.carlawaterman.com.