When I was a boy I thought I heard angels sing. I was in my bedroom at the time and the sound seemed to come from a distance. I was perplexed by what I heard. When I opened the bedroom window the music grew louder. I thought I could see a heavenly glow beyond the rooftop of the house next door. The fact that Christmas was approaching was the clincher for me. It had to be a heavenly choir of angels jubilating over the birth of the Christ child. There could be no other explanation.
Actually, it turns out that there was a more mundane explanation for the phenomenon. Someone was selling Christmas trees over on the next block. They had strung the lot with colored lights. The music I heard was only a phonograph connected to a loudspeaker. So much for my heavenly visitation. But I have often thought back on that brief moment of transcendence when I was certain I heard the angels sing on high.
When Gabriel appeared to Mary, there was no burst of song but a herald’s announcement. “Greetings, you who are highly favored!” the angel said. “The Lord is with you.” Artists have pictured this as a transcendent moment for Mary but Luke paints it differently. Mary is not moved to bliss by the angel’s words but to perplexity. She was troubled by what she heard. Perhaps she heard in them an echo of the angel’s greeting to Gideon as he threshed grain in a cistern and brooded about Israel’s defeat. In the Bible this sort of promise always seems to be the precursor to an especially difficult assignment.
Or perhaps it was the ascription of God’s special favor that surprised Mary. It is true that Mary was from a royal line. But beyond that, there does not seem to have been much else about her life that made it singularly blessed. She was just a young girl betrothed to the village carpenter. Neither of them was rich. They do not seem to have had any grandiose plans. Until now there had been nothing to suggest that their life together would be anything but ordinary.
The details the angel provides reveal the singular favor that will be bestowed upon Mary. “You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus” the angel commanded. “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”
Yet instead of reassurance, the angel’s promise only served to trouble Mary further. “How will this be,” Mary replied, “since I am a virgin?” She was of childbearing age. She was already engaged. How did she think it would happen? Mary’s question makes sense only if we understand the angel to be saying that this conception will be unusual. No man will father this child. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you,and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” the angel promised. “So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.” Still, among all the remarkable words exchanged in this encounter, the most astonishing were those of Mary herself.“I am the Lord’s servant,” she replied after she had heard all these things. “May it be to me as you have said.”
Did Mary know what she was agreeing to do? She knew at least this much: she would become pregnant before she was married and the only explanation she could give for this was that God was the baby’s father. She could not have concocted a more unlikely explanation if she had tried. If Mary was anxious about Joseph’s reaction, she gave no indication of it. After all, why should she be anxious? She knew what kind of man Joseph was. Scripture reveals that he was a man of faith, quick to do what he knew to be God’s will.
Yet no braver words have been spoken by an ordinary person since time began. This is no ecstatic utterance made by someone caught in a moment of metaphysical rapture. It is a statement of strong conviction and hard resolve. It is also a workaday response, the sort of reply a soldier or slave might give. Mary, like the angel who greets her, knows her place. Despite the words of the Cherry Tree Carol, she is not the queen of Galilee but only a servant. If she is full of grace at this moment, it is the grace to obey.
Zechariah was an old man when the angel appeared to him. His priestly career was mostly behind him as was the hope of fatherhood. In fact, Zechariah was long past hoping. He was trying to understand the reasons why. He and his wife Elizabeth had tried to have children for many years. They had prayed too. Of course, they had prayed. Zechariah was a priest and Elizabeth a descendant of Aaron! They had been faithful to God for many years. Yet in all that time God had withheld this small blessing from them.
By now you would think that this ambition would have burned low, along with the desire that accompanies it. Yet when the day came for Zechariah to enter the holy place to pray and offer incense, it occupied his mind. After all those years of faithful service, had it really been so much to ask? Others had been granted this blessing, some many times over. Family members, friends, and some who seemed far less devoted to God than Zechariah and Elizabeth had been allowed to become parents. Time and again he and Elizabeth had been called to celebrate the birth of someone else’s child. Elizabeth wept secret tears over the pitying looks she received from the other women. Zechariah tried to comfort her in his clumsy way and urged her not to give up. Now it was too late. They both knew it. Elizabeth was barren. He was old. They were both too far gone in years to hope for children any longer.
Was the old priest brooding? Perhaps, a little. But it was short lived. He was interrupted with a start when out of the corner of his eye he noticed a figure in the shadows standing next to the altar of incense. The flickering light from the seven branches of the lampstand made the man seem to dance. Zechariah gasped involuntarily and the hair on the back of his neck stood on end. His first thought was that there has been some confusion. Perhaps another priest had mistakenly thought that the lot had fallen to him to perform this duty. Maybe the error been Zechariah’s.
Zechariah realized that the figure standing by the altar was gazing intently at him. The priest was about to demand an explanation when the stranger spoke. His tone was reassuring and his face bore the hint of a smile. “Don’t be afraid Zechariah, he said. “Your prayer has been heard.”
“Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth.”
Zechariah recognized these rules. They were the laws associated with a Nazarite Vow. If the stranger was speaking the truth, not only would he and Elizabeth have a son, but their son would be devoted to the Lord from birth. He would be like Samson or Samuel.
“He will bring many of the people of Israel back to the Lord their God”the stranger went on. “And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
A thrill of happiness swept over Zechariah, like a wave that breaks upon the shore. It dissipated just as quickly. This was too good to be true. Perhaps someone was playing a practical joke. But it couldn’t be. No priest or Israelite would dare to trespass here. It was too dangerous. He had heard stories of this kind of thing all his life. Visitations by strangers with promises that came from God. It was the sort of thing that happened to people like Abraham and Sarah, Elkanah and Hannah. But that was in the old stories. He could not imagine such a thing ever happening to him.
At last Zechariah found the courage to speak. “How can I be sure of this?” he demanded. “I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” There was a note of helplessness in his voice. As if Zechariah was afraid to believe what he heard. He and his Elizabeth had prayed so hard and had waited so long. He did not think they could bear to be disappointed again.
As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Zechariah regretted them. He saw the speaker’s expression change in the lamplight. His eyebrows rose in surprise and the timbre of his voice changed from reassurance to indignation. “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news” he declared. The angel had not actually raised his voice. Yet his words struck Zechariah like the blast of a trumpet. If terror had not kept him frozen in place, he would have fallen on his face and covered his ears.
“Now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time!” the angel declared.
And then suddenly he was gone. The light seemed to flicker the way a candle does when it gutters. Or the way the sparks rise when incense touches the coals on the altar. There was a hint of fragrance in the air. Not the usual smell of incense but something else. A fragrance that Zechariah could not identify. It made him dizzy. The old priest stood there for several minutes breathing heavily. The ancient silence of the place gathered around him and he tried to collect his thoughts. At last, he made his way out of the Holy Place, stumbling like a blind man.
Meanwhile outside in the temple court, there was a growing sound like waves that have been troubled by the wind when a storm is rising. It was the sound of murmuring coming from those who waited for Zechariah to finish his duties. They were nervous. This delay was not a good sign. Some wondered whether Zechariah had died. Perhaps he had collapsed from old age or maybe he had been smitten by God. After all, such things had happened before. Hadn’t Aaron’s own sons had been struck down when they offered strange fire before the Lord? The waiting multitude cried out in relief when Zechariah finally came into view. But something had happened. That much was clear from the expression on his face. They began to pepper him with questions.
Zechariah raised his arms like someone pronouncing a benediction in a vain attempt to ward off the crowd that swarmed around him. By now he was fully possessed by the joy of what the angel had said. He grinned like a fool. He reeled like a drunken man. He opened his mouth to shout the good news but of course, he could not utter a word. Zechariah began to heave with silent laughter, as tears streamed down his face. He gesticulated wildly with his hands in an attempt to communicate by signs. “He has had some kind of vision,” someone said at last. And Zechariah nodded emphatically.
Zechariah finished out the course of his service and returned home to his wife Elizabeth. The two of them began to count the days until the promised child’s birth. “The Lord has done this for me,” Elizabeth said to those who expressed their amazement. “He looked on me to remove my shame.”
In this way, it came to pass that Zechariah and Elizabeth were drawn into the ancient stories they had known all their lives and so became a tale themselves. Like the answering line of some advent carol, their joys and sorrows were joined to those who had come before. Just as their promised child would set the stage for everything that would come afterward. When Elizabeth’s time was complete, she gave birth to a son. Zechariah wept. Elizabeth laughed. They named him John, just as the angel had predicted. And this was only the beginning of signs.