(This monologue in the voice of Zechariah was a joint effort of my partner, the Rev. Lexie Chamberlain and I. It is based on the story in the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel. Her version is a bit different from mine.)
Have you ever seen or heard something, had an experience that was too incredible for words? Ironically, there are lots of words that get used to talk about how it feels.
Gobsmacked! Tongue tied! Speechless!
It was all of those, and more, or less for me, I am still trying to come to terms with what happened to me, to my wife Elizabeth, well… to our family!
Here’s my story. My name is Zechariah. I am a priest at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Some of you may have heard the term Rabbi before, but I am not a rabbi. I’m a priest.
The people of Israel are descended from the sons of a man named Jacob, whose name was actually changed to, well, Israel, after his encounter with a messenger from God. Our scriptures tell us that he wrestled with an angel. That kind of thing can make you see things differently, believe me.
One of Jacob’s sons was named Levi. Tradition says the priests of our nation come from the tribe of Levi. A priest does not study the laws of our religion like the rabbis do. We are not teachers, or preachers, thank goodness. The priests, and there are a lot of us, a whole tribe, make sure all the rituals of the temple are done properly.
We take care of the daily prayers, the sacrifice of animals, holy offerings, the ritual of purification after a woman gives birth, and circumcision. (That’s cutting edge technology, let me tell you.)
We priests of the tribe of Levi only serve at the Temple in Jerusalem. The rabbis, who teach our stories to the people, are based in our branch offices, the local synagogues.
Here’s the thing. Over the centuries, all the tribes of Israel have grown in number. There are a lot of us priests. So many, there is a roster, a schedule for when we each get a turn to serve. When it’s a high holy day like the Passover there is lots of work to do, but for most of the year, it’s much quieter.
We are divided up into clans or teams, that take turns to go to Jerusalem and stay at the temple when it is our week. It’s like when a rookie gets called up to big leagues. It’s very exciting. We all look forward to our turn at bat, to actually go in the holy of holies, and burn the incense. It’s a real honour, and with so many of us wanting a turn, it could be a once in a life time opportunity.
Actually, so many priests wanted to do it, we had to start drawing lots, like pulling a name out of a hat. This drawing of lots is something we do to leave the choice up to God.
I never expected my name to be drawn. I wondered if I’d done or said something to upset God, because things never seem to go my way. Some people might say that was just my lot in life.
My wife, Elizabeth and I, had been married a long time and we wanted children, but it didn’t happen. Some suggested God was punishing us for some sin we had committed. People can be cruel, and small-minded.
Some questioned if I should be a priest, or wondered what kind of a priest I could be, because there must be something wrong with me. On nights when Elizabeth and I would sit in our sorrow, and shame, I tried to remind her we are human, and God is God, and we don’t know the mind of God. God may not answer our prayers in the way, or on the schedule we prefer.
Speaking of schedules, as I was saying, I didn’t expect my name to ever come up on the Temple roster. But there it was! I was going to have my shot at the big leagues, my trip into the holy of holies, the heart of the Temple, to offer incense at the altar.
My fellow priests, some close cousins and some almost strangers, we are a pretty big tribe, had heard of me, and knew the rumours. When my name appeared on the batting order, some were amazed, and some were envious. Why would I be chosen? I admit, I also wondered.
We all grew up hearing about the holy of holies. The grandeur of this room, at the centre of the holiest part of the Temple, at the centre of our faith! In our tradition, there’s that word again, it’s the place on earth closest to the throne of God. A room that shone with gold, and where the only sounds were murmured prayers, and the sizzle of oils ladled on the fire.
Our fathers, and uncles, and their fathers and uncles told us about the smoke, the holy fumes, the sweet smell of the incense that rose up from the flames, taking the prayers of our tribe, of our people, up to God.
It’s a scent that stays with you. I can still smell it today. Do you have scents in your life that evoke a particular time or place? Maybe it is the smell of homemade bread, or gingerbread cookies, or a freshly cut pine tree, or the perfume or cologne a loved one used to wear.
The smell of the incense wafting up to God, and the knowledge I’d fulfilled my duty, this life-time longing to serve, these things would have been enough. But wait, there was more.
I did not just get my turn at bat. In words you might understand from your time, I also hit the ball, and it was out of there! A home run, with the bases loaded!
No, I didn’t actually hit anything. I don’t even play baseball. The robes would get in the way. I didn’t do anything, except stand there, in awe of the moment, and of what happened next.
There was an angel. I did not do as our ancestor Jacob did, and wrestle with God’s messenger, although I am wrestling with trying to understand, to grasp what the angel told me. Gabriel said my dear wife, Elizabeth, after many years of sadness and disappointment, of hope stretched thin to the point of almost breaking, would bear a child.
As if just being in the holy of holies was not enough to have me shaking and shivering in my sandals, and speechless, Gabriel said, “You and Elizabeth will have a baby, and you are to name him John. As a sign that what I say is true, you will not be able to utter a word, until the day of your son’s birth. Every word I’ve spoken to you will come true on time—God’s time.”
After that incredible moment in the batter’s box, running the bases, and facing the scrum of reporters after the game would be a letdown, at least for me.
One of the reporters, named Luke, said that because I’d been in holy of holies room for so long, and hadn’t come out, the congregation was getting restless. When I came out and couldn’t speak, they knew something had happened, that I’d had a vision. At least that’s what Luke said. I didn’t say anything.
When a priest leaves the holy of holies their next stop is the steps of the temple, to offer a blessing to the people gathered there. I had practiced the blessing, over and over, making sure I could say it without stumbling.
I went to the top step, raised my arms, and nothing, absolutely nothing came out. I could not speak. I was overcome by emotions. I raised my hands and I looked at the people, people whose prayers I had helped send to God, and I uttered not one word.
Some people realized something special had happened to me. Some said the silent benediction was more profound than the traditional old words.
The words I wanted to say that day, are these:
May life bless you with moments of wonder and awe that leave you speechless.
May hope sing deep in your soul.
May God bless you and keep you.
When my scheduled time in Jerusalem was finished, I went home to Elizabeth. A few months later, she confirmed that she was pregnant. I didn’t know what to say then, either. Amen