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Zechariah: The Christmas Story’s Unsung Hero

The biblical tale of how this holy priest was visited by archangel Gabriel sums up the promise of this special season.

Zechariah and Gabriel. Photo credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

I think of Zechariah as the guy who gets left out of most Christmas pageants. You always see the angels appearing to the shepherds, “a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God” with flapping of wings and shimmering halos. And there might be a scene of Gabriel appearing to a startled Mary to proclaim the good news. But if you look back at the Gospel of Luke, you’ll notice that Gabriel shows up at the temple in Jerusalem, appearing to Zechariah first.

When it comes to holiness, Zechariah would be at the top of any list, one of those good souls who has spent his life doing the right thing. As a priest at the temple, he and his wife Elizabeth have observed all the commandments. They are “righteous before God,” blameless. Their only unanswered prayer is that they’re getting on in age and still haven’t conceived a child.

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You can imagine what the village gossips would have said. Sure, Zechariah was a holy man, reeking with the stench of temple incense, but the couple must have been hiding some deep dark secret or God would have shown them favor by now, wouldn’t he have? Zechariah and Elizabeth must have asked themselves the same thing.

Then one day, as Zechariah is serving at the temple, standing in the holiest of holy sanctuaries, burning more incense and saying the prayers, an angel appears all at once to the right of the altar. Zechariah is overcome with fear, a common biblical reaction to such celestial events.

“Do not be afraid,” the angel says—taking the line from the usual heavenly script—“Your prayers have been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will give birth to your son, and you must name him John.” The angel goes on to say that this child is not going to be like any other child, but will be filled with the Holy Spirit, a prophet like Elijah, turning the people of Israel back to righteousness, preparing them for the appearance of the Lord.

It’s easy enough to forgive Zechariah’s incredulity. How often had he gone to the temple and never seen anything like this? How on earth was his elderly wife going to have a child? It seemed impossible. He must have been tempted to laugh, as the aged Sarah did when she was given similar news. “How can I be sure of this?” he summons the courage to ask. “My wife and I are very old.”

The angel is sorely offended. After all, he’s not a lowly cherubim or seraphim; he is the archangel Gabriel, at the top of the heap, called on to deliver God’s most important messages. In fact, the next person on his agenda is Mary the Mother of God. Think of the news he’ll bring her. How dare this old codger not believe him.

I’m Gabriel,” the angel says. “I was sent to speak to you and to bring this good news to you. What I have spoken will come true.” Then he delivers the zinger. “But because you didn’t believe, you will remain silent, unable to speak until the day when these things happen.” The unspoken message: Don’t mess with Gabriel.

All of this has taken a while. Outside the temple people are wondering why Zechariah is still inside. The prayers and incense have stopped, so why hasn’t he come out? Finally he emerges and gestures helplessly, trying to explain that he’s seen a vision, been given some extraordinary news. He has traveled to Jerusalem from his small village to do his priestly stint, and he waits it out, wordlessly now, no doubt confused as to how the angel’s words will be fulfilled.

When he returns home to his village, Elizabeth does indeed become pregnant. For five months she doesn’t tell a soul. Until her cousin Mary—after she has heard from Gabriel— comes for a visit. The baby Elizabeth is carrying leaps in her womb as though to greet the child Mary is carrying. The two of them will change the world. “Why do I have this honor,” Elizabeth asks, “that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” She gets it—a common trope in the Gospels that the women are often quicker on the uptake than the men.

Meanwhile Zechariah remains mute until his son is born. On the eighth day the baby is taken to be circumcised, following the Jewish ritual. Everybody wants to name him Zechariah, after his father. No, his mother says, he should be called John. Zechariah asks for a tablet so he can write it down: John. At that moment Gabriel’s curse is lifted and Zechariah is able to speak again.

“You, child, will be called a prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,” Zechariah proclaims. “To give light to those who are sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide us on the path of peace.”

There are various legends about what happened to Zechariah later in his life, that he managed to hide his son John the Baptist from Herod’s minions when the king slaughtered all the baby boys in Bethlehem. Perhaps. But the vision I hold in my head is of a man who waited into old age for his prayers to be answered. And then an angel appeared to him with news more astounding than anything he could have dreamed. That’s the unspoken promise every Christmas pageant brings to me.

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