There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah. His wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both well advanced in years.
So it was, that while he was serving as priest before God in the order of his division, according to the custom of the priesthood, his lot fell to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord. And the whole multitude of the people was praying outside at the hour of incense. Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him.
- Luke 1:5-12
As it is the time of Advent and the Christmas season, dear readers, I am taking a break from the usual Lectionary readings and postings on my blog. It is a time for me of rest and reflection, a time for services and listening to our pastors, and participating with our communities. My posts may be sporadic until Epiphany, at which time I will resume blogging commentary on the Daily Office Lectionary. Today I begin with Luke 1, the story of prophecy, the "new beginning" for the people of God.
There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah. His wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Luke sets a historical date for us, in his attempt to be as thorough and reliable as he can. Herod ruled Judea from 37-4 BC. Known as a great builder of wondrous projects, he was also renown for his cruelty as a leader. My study bible says, "An ancient prophecy of Jacob indicated the Messiah would come when a king ruled who was not from the tribe of Judah (Genesis 49:10). As Herod was a non-Jew calling himself the king of Judea, the coming of Christ was surely at hand."
And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both well advanced in years. My study bible points out that Zacharias and Elizabeth are righteous before God; that is, not merely in outward appearance, but to the core of their being. The holiness of John the Baptist came in part through the faith and piety of his parents. It is a case in which both are blameless in God's sight, but she bears a public reproach. So we begin our story with one of a typical portrait of a woman -- as so many others that Christ will point out -- who loves God without blame, and yet bears a social stigma in the public eye. My study bible says that "like Sara (Genesis 16:1), Rebekah (Genesis 25:21), Rachel (Genesis 29:31), Hannah (1 Kings 1:2), and Anna, the mother of the Virgin Mary, Elizabeth's temporary barrenness was in fulfillment of God's plan for the salvation of His people."
So it was, that while he was serving as priest before God in the order of his division, according to the custom of the priesthood, his lot fell to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord. And the whole multitude of the people was praying outside at the hour of incense. We remember that incense is a way of sending prayers to God; as the Psalm says, "Let my prayer be set forth before You as incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice (141:2), and we are to be a pleasing fragrance to God (1 Corinthians 2:15). Revelation speaks of the heavenly golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the holy, the saints (5:8). My study bible explains that each priest was assigned to a division. There were twenty-four divisions in all, each serving a week at a time in rotation. The responsibilities in the division were decided by lot; Zacharias is here assigned the duties of the high priest. This event takes place at the time of the Atonement, when the high priest would enter the temple and make offerings for the sins of the people."
Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him. My study bible says, "Angels minister continually at the altar of the Lord, though usually unseen. Those priests of pure heart, such as Zacharias, are occasionally chosen by God to witness this angelic liturgy (see also Isaiah 6; Revelation 7:9-17)."
The story of Christ begins with a sort of ordinary day. That is, we're given a scene from the regular operating of the temple -- the system of worship, the rotation, the service, the hour of incense, the prayers of the people outside. A kind of ordinary couple are the first to populate the scene in this vignette taken out of history, as we focus in on the story. We get the time set for us in the rather extraordinary reign of Herod the Great -- a builder of wonders for all to admire (including the awe-inspiring reconstruction of the temple), and a ruthlessly violent and cruel ruler, known even among authorities of the time as a man who commits exceptional levels of murder, even as a murderer of family members. But this couple we focus in on has its own problems, and is also extraordinary in its own way. They are people of exceptional faith, not only blameless in the Law but blameless before God, in the heart. And they have a problem, a social problem: Elizabeth is barren, and so she bears a social reproach despite her great sanctity, and her blamelessness before God. We begin in this place of daily life, ordered as it has been for centuries in the divisions and workings of the temple, among the people and this now older couple. But the extraordinary sense of the heavenly appearing in earthly life is about to happen. It's not unheard of, but here in this place of Zachariah's turn to minister and perform his duties, an angel appears -- even as we know the angels celebrate with us, even as the incense burns to send up the prayers of the people of God. The holy intersects our world. It "breaks in" as some references in the Gospels will teach us, it breaks into our midst with a kind of violence of its own, a sudden terror seizes Zacharaiah at what must be a tremendous sight of an angel at the altar. We think of cherubs as the sweet looking little child inspired by images of the ancient Eros (or Cupid), god of love. But we should and must remember angels also as fiery beings, the ones of tremendous light and power and energy, many-winged heavenly beings who serve God. Here is not just an angel but an archangel, a leader of angels, and impulsively and with knowledge of the spiritual history of Israel, Zachariah does well by his instinctive and informed "terror," because the greatest messenger of the completely unknown and infinite, mysterious God (the Lord, whom we know as the "I AM") has broken into this scene and appeared before him. What will the angel bring? An announcement of God is about a future unknown, taken into new territory, and who knows what task may be at hand to fulfill this word? It is the kingdom of heaven breaking in, coming near, at hand, and Zachariah is right not to underestimate that anything may happen, that he is about to be called into something beyond extraordinary. Let us remember the lightning-flash brightness, the energy and fire of these awesome beings who serve the glory of the Lord, whose word (as messengers) is God's command. Zachariah is bold enough and humble enough to know this, and to be aware of the impact of such a command which becomes a responsibility, an oath. This angel ought to inspire awe, even a kind of terror at the power of what is God's business, and what it might mean to be open to that power at work in one's life, and called upon to bear something into the world. Let us remember the humility that understands that we cannot contain God nor God's power in our lives.