Advent is a season of hope. It is a season of excitement for what is coming. As children, we wait in eager anticipation and even impatience for the arrival of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Children do not often experience the planning of holiday festivities, celebrations, and the hard work that goes into organizing events or family get-togethers. As children we are often “along for the ride” through holiday travel, shopping for gifts and preparations for Christmas parties, events, & services. Children are thrilled with excitement as they hope for Christmas gifts. This hopeful anticipation comes through idea-sharing, making wish lists, and noticing what others need or want. Adults find joy in the sharing of gifts with others, particularly gifts that are given to children. They look forward to the children’s expressions of joy and appreciation.
As I take time to reflect on this year’s Advent season and the message of hope for the celebration of Christ’s birth, I am challenged with a new thought that shifts the perspective of seasonal and holiday anticipation. The expectation of a long-awaited Messiah had loomed over the Children of Israel for centuries. In the midst of imperial rule and a under a coercive Roman occupation, a devastated nation yearned for a Savior. The messianic promises that were proclaimed through voices of prophets seemed to have at some point fallen beneath or between the cracks of history. However, the message of hope prevailed.
A long tradition declared a time of salvation and deliverance would come. One would anticipate that a powerful voice would come out of the silence unexpectedly to announce the coming of the Messiah and God’s Kingdom on earth, right? Here is the remarkable paradox and shift in the fulfillment of what the prophets had proclaimed. A man named Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, a priestly couple devoted to the Jewish faith, yearned for a Messiah. They were also childless. Though they had always desired to have children, Elizabeth was barren and beyond the age of child-bearing. In the midst of this couple’s yearning for their own offspring, God’s provision and long-awaited promise took a leap forward into time.
Zechariah was called to serve on duty at the Temple in Jerusalem and he entered the Holy of Holies to offer burnt sacrifices to God. A crowd of pious Jews remained outside the temple and offered their prayers to God while Zechariah remained inside, faithfully performing his duty as a priest. During this momentous occasion, Zechariah was interrupted by an unexpected visitor. The angel Gabriel announced that Elizabeth and Zechariah would have a son and he was to be named, “John.”
Zechariah explained to Gabriel that his wife was beyond child-bearing age but it did not stop Gabriel from describing the man that Zechariah’s son would become. As a man who was familiar with the language of his own religious tradition, it would have been impossible for Zechariah not to hear the echo of prophetic scripture texts about God’s coming Messiah in the words of Gabriel. Zechariah would have also been familiar with the faith practice of witnessing a sign that reflected God’s power and presence. Therefore, it should not surprise us that Zechariah asked Gabriel how he would know that what he was saying was true. The response was Gabriel’s declaration of Zechariah’s silence followed by Gabriel’s impairment, an inability to speak.
Zechariah exited the temple and met the crowd of worshippers that remained outside the temple. Though he was unable to verbally communicate what he beheld in the temple and what was told to him, the gathered assembly of believers could tell by looking at Zechariah, that something incredible had taken place (and was about to take place). Zechariah and Elizabeth returned home and both entered a period of silence. Zechariah’s silence was due to his impairment and Elizabeth’s silence came in her months of seclusion during her pregnancy. Both of them were touched by God’s presence and, in the fulfillment of their own yearning for a child, God’s prophetic word came out of silence and moved forward to prepare the way for the coming of the long-awaited Messiah.
The end of Luke 1 tells the story of the birth of Zechariah’s son, John the Baptist. According to Jewish custom and tradition, Zechariah held the authority as John’s father to name his son. However, Zechariah was not able to speak. As he wrote his son’s name in order to announce it, Zechariah ended his time of silence. The final verses of Luke 1 are a poem, a song, and a prophecy that Zechariah proclaimed for all to hear. He described God’s promises fulfilled and the salvation that came and is coming through God’s mighty acts of deliverance. Zechariah reflected on the faith tradition and how God’s faithfulness surpassed the expectations and encounters of their Hebrew ancestors. Zechariah & Elizabeth’s celebration of God’s presence with them through the faithfulness of promises fulfilled came through the birth of a child.
Hope carries the power and presence of eager anticipation. As people who live in a post-Christendom world today, we exerience a new hope that comes each year during Advent and the Christmas season. It is a hope that reflects something deeper beyond any material gift that we could give or receive. It is, in fact, the gift of a being. God’s prophetic word was the promise that a child would be born and that child would become the one who would rule the nations and would bring a restoration of shalom: peace, justice, healing, wholeness, salvation, and liberation.
The anticipated hope came through Jesus who was born as a human baby, grew through childhood and adolescence, and became a man. He lived, served, taught, healed, and performed miracles, signs and wonders that proclaimed he was the Messiah and the Kingdom of God was near. Now, as Christ’s Body, the Church, we come as we are to demonstrate through our very presence the reality of God’s Kingdom and the fulfillment of God’s promises that still ring true today. We celebrate hope through the sharing of presence with each other and in doing so, we remind ourselves and everyone else that hope is coming. It is coming in me, it is coming in you. It will one day come new in all of us. Thanks be to God!
Mark Pickens serves as a field associate for ADN. He lives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where he attends First Church of the Brethren, Harrisburg. Mark brings to ADN his personal experience as a blind person. He is interested in exploring the ways our understandings of God and disabilities interact and influence personal faith and congregational practices. Mark can speak about many disability accessibility issues, including those related to low vision and blindness. You can contact Mark through the ADN office.