[This essay was first delivered as a homily during the graduation convocation service for the William Penn Honors Program Class of 2018.]
St. Luke, in compiling his “ordered account” of Christ’s life, begins at the very beginning, with the Incarnation. But he crafts his narrative in a particular way, by presenting the reader with a juxtaposition between Zachariah, the father of John the Baptist, and Mary, the mother of Christ. This opening to Luke’s gospel mirrors the opening of the book of 1 Samuel, in the Old Testament, which similarly juxtaposes a woman and a priest—or rather two priests, the sons of Eli.
That woman, Hannah, is barren, and brings her grief to God in prayer. She is described as “pouring out her soul” to God. Her prayer is a libation, an offering. The priests, on the other hand, the ones who are tasked with the business of making offerings, are taking the choice meats for themselves, with a giant three-pronged fork. They are described as “treating the offerings of the Lord with contempt,” seizing “by force” what has been set aside for God. In the end, they are killed for this. Hannah is portrayed, in contrast, as a better priest than the actual priests, and her offering is accepted. She is given a son, and in a gesture of gratitude, she offers this son, Samuel, back to God.
Mary’s song from Luke, the Magnificat, explicitly echoes the song of praise given by Hannah in 1 Samuel.
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior.
My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly.
He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap.
The harmony between the songs accentuates the connection between these two texts, these two figures. The story of Hannah is a type, a shadow, an anticipation of the story of Mary—an echo that comes prior to the shout, rather than after.
So if the story of Hannah gives us a contrast between greed that leads to death, and gratitude that leads to life, what are we supposed to learn from the comparison of Zachariah and Mary in Luke?
First, let us mark the similarities, which are readily obvious. Both experience the appearance of an angel, who tells them not to be afraid, and then delivers quite surprising, pregnancy-related news. Both Zachariah and Mary respond to this news with a question.
These overt similarities lead us, the readers, into a mode of comparison; we notice how these stories are alike, and are thus quite startled when, as the text goes on, Zachariah is punished and Mary is praised. The sudden condemnation of Zachariah elicits a sense of confusion. What did he do to deserve that? Don’t Zachariah and Mary respond to the angel in basically the same way?
Ah, but here’s why we can’t stop at a surface-level reading. By presenting us with a confusing contrast, Luke urges us deeper, and if we follow his lead, we can discern subtle but deeply profound differences between Zachariah and Mary—differences in the initial reaction, the subsequent response, and the ultimate result.
Let’s take a closer look at their reactions, starting with Zachariah. When the angel first appears to him, the text states that Zachariah “was terrified and fear overwhelmed him.” Zachariah’s immediate reaction is terror and overwhelming fear.
Now, before we prejudge Zachariah here, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. Elsewhere in scripture, angels are described with some unsettling imagery: wheels upon wheels, flaming swords, multiple faces, hundreds of eyes—not cuddly baby cherubs or pretty white people with wings. And angels, across the board, almost always start their greetings with these words: Do not be afraid! That is a good indication that angelic appearances are, by and large, rather alarming events.
When the angel appears to Mary, however, he greets her differently: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you!” And here is Mary’s initial reaction: “She was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.”
Mary is perplexed. She does not understand what is happening; she is baffled; surprised, caught off guard—but also curious. Rather than reacting with terror and fear when confronted with the unknown, she ponders—a word that carries a sense of caution, contemplation, a suspension of immediate judgment, deep and careful thought.
When the angel delivers the substance of his news to Zachariah and Mary, each responds with a question—questions that, at first glance, appear quite similar. But I would argue that there is a meaningful distinction in both the tone and content of each question.
In response to the improbable news that his barren and aged wife would bear a son, Zachariah says, “How will I know this is so?”
In response to the impossible news that she, a virgin, would bear a son, Mary asks, “How can this be?”
How will I know?
How can this be?
Zachariah responds to the unknown with terror and allows that fear to overwhelm him. Upon hearing the angel’s revelation, his fear quiets somewhat—into suspicion. How will I know? He is turned toward himself, focused on the “I.”
Mary, in the face of the unknown, remains composed, curious, and she responds to this divine revelation with a question, yes—but a question posed in a spirit of wonder, rather than suspicion. How can this be? Her question is outward-looking, faced toward the mystery, rather than herself. She is asking to be taken more deeply into what is being revealed, even as she does not yet understand.
Zachariah, in contrast, stands at a distance, asking for proof. Like the priests in 1 Samuel, he expresses a desire to possess, in this case to possess knowledge.
Mary, however, expresses a desire to receive, in this case to receive perhaps the greatest gift ever offered by God to a human being: the gift of becoming the mother of God-in-the-flesh.
Two divergent results follow from these two questions. Zachariah is punished with temporary muteness. He is robbed of speech, until the angel’s prophecy is fulfilled.
But Mary’s request is answered, at least in part—more of the mystery is unveiled to her: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the Power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will called Son of God.”
In response to this further disclosure, Mary gives her full assent, she welcomes what has been revealed: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
And this is the moment it happens: the Incarnation, the pitching of God’s tent among us, in our very nature.
Zachariah is cut off from the word, unable to speak, unable to bring his inner life and thoughts into sensible, audible reality. Mary, in contrast, is united so fully with the Word of God, that the Word becomes flesh within her. Her yes in this moment, in spite of the apparent impossibility of what is being told to her—and in spite of the risk to herself, as an unmarried woman—this yes to God, this yes to her creator is the most complete, perfect yes ever spoken by a creature.
Suspicion vs. wonder.
Possession vs. receptivity.
Wordlessness vs. Word-made-flesh.
These contrasts presented to us in the first chapter of Luke reveal two disparate spiritual paths. Zachariah, I think, reflects very much the spirit of our age. We live in an age of doubt, skepticism, an age that responds to the question of God with a desire to capture God in the lasso of our knowledge, to wedge him under a microscope, to make him a knowable, and thus an own-able item. And because, of course, God is precisely not the kind of being that can be captured in this way—he is not a being in the cosmos, but rather endows the cosmos with being—we doubt that he exists at all.
Let me let you in on a little secret: it is impossible to love God if you are suspicious of him. Suspicion is not a disposition that can lead to spiritual flourishing. No, it will cut you off from the Word.
Mary provides a different model. Not a model—and I want to make this very clear!—where one does not ask questions, or confront the unknown. Quite the opposite. Both Zachariah and Mary raise questions, and pose those questions to God. But Mary asks hers in a spirit of wonder. She is not defensive, crossing her arms and asking God to wheel through the room like a magician and unmask his mystery once and for all. Instead, she sees her perplexity as an opportunity—an opportunity to venture toward God, to enter more deeply into his mystery.
And by “mystery,” I mean something that one comes to know slowly, gradually, bit by bit, forever. This is not mystery in the sense of a closed door, but mystery in the sense of a world that can be endlessly explored.
Mary’s openness, her wonder, enables her to be uniquely receptive to the reality of God. Multiple times in his gospel, Luke describes Mary’s heart, her inner orientation:
Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.
His mother treasured all these things in her heart.
Mary cultivates a deep and vibrant interior life, where she contemplates, ponders, and treasures the things of God. This is the model of the Christian life: a receptivity to divine grace that enables Christ to become known.
So this is my charge to you, college graduates of 2018: to go out into the world, taking Mary as your model; to see each person you encounter as a miracle, rather than a threat; to receive each question that arises in a spirit of wonder, rather than suspicion, all the while holding fast to the promises of God in your heart.
And if you feel that, in this moment, you are more like Zachariah than Mary—despair not! Because in the following chapter, his lips are opened, he receives the spirit that comes upon him, and his words gush forth as an offering of praise:
In the tender compassion of our God,
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
to shine on those who dwell in darkness
and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet
into the way of peace.