Today’s Advent Reading:
USCCB — December 19th
When Mary, the mother of Jesus, was visited by an angel of the Lord, she was bound to be startled. The angel informed her that she, a virgin, would become pregnant with the Messiah, the long-foretold savior of the Jews. Surely, she faced many social obstacles and humiliation in her future as a result of this teenage pregnancy, and still, she managed to cry, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).
To many readers, myself included, Mary’s excellence of faith hardly seems relatable. Who could bear to have all her life’s ambitions thwarted in one unexpected moment and be able to respond in such a pure way? Thankfully, God provides a more relatable figure in Zechariah, who is also told by an angel that he will have a son. The angel expounds, “And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord” (Luke 1:14). His son would be the one to pave the way for the Messiah.
Zechariah wonders aloud how this could be, since both he and his wife are far past their primes. It is as if Zechariah says to the angel of the Most High God, “Prove it.” He and his wife had been praying for years to be granted a child. God loves to use those who are most broken, who are in the darkest despair, and lift them into the most brilliant joy. These people were simply asking for a child, and God decided to give them the great Elijah prophesied about by Isaiah and Malachi. But in the moment, instead of responding with joy and gratefulness, Zechariah cannot help but doubt God’s promise.
How similar this reaction is to many of our own! In contrast to Mary’s illiteracy, Zechariah, like many of us, is very well-educated—he has likely memorized much of the Pentateuch. And yet, his education does not help him remember God’s faithfulness to the Israelites, when He reveals Himself to Zechariah in an extraordinary way. In the end, our education will not be what saves us, or even ensures our belief in God. We must have a sincere, inner trust that God will use us for His purposes and for our good, no matter what.
This narrative likewise shows that the blessings that Zechariah has due to his station are of little value in God’s heavenly economy. He may be able to intercede as priest for the whole nation of Israel, but his personal affairs are not fully set before the Lord. Nevertheless, it is significant that God chooses to send a messenger at a sacred time, when Zechariah was serving in the temple. Even in the absence of extraordinary faith, God blesses the special, habitual times we set aside for drawing near to Him.
It is reflecting on Zechariah’s shortcomings that draws me to the deeply insightful plea of the father of a demon-possessed boy to Jesus, “I believe, help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24). Zechariah believes, but he does not really believe. He prays, but he does not count on God to hear his prayers. When I am praying, do I really expect God to answer my prayers? God often chooses those who do not excel in faith. If we can make that father’s saying our maxim, entering by the truth of that cry into God’s special presence, as Zechariah is in the temple, then God will appear to us. He will come to bless us in unexpected ways, to cast out our demons, whatever they may be. God’s power and plan do not depend on the strength or faith of the humans they involve. And for that, we can be grateful. Today’s Gospel shows us that even when we do not believe, even when our faith in God’s plan is lacking, God can use us anyway.
In the time of Advent, there is certainly a sense in which the reality of God being born a man is scarcely believable. It is difficult to wrap our minds around the fact that Jesus has come to pay for our sins past, present, and future. It is precisely in these times of our doubt that our chorus needs to be, “God, I believe in your faithfulness, help my unbelief.” We cannot always have the faith of Mary. But throughout the Scriptures, time and again, God has chosen the flawed to make His glory all the more apparent. This, more than God’s actual answer to our prayers, is reason to give thanks.
Bryce McDonald ’21 is a freshman in Stoughton Hall.