19 December 2009: Misa de Gallo
Judges 13, 2-7, 24-25; Psalm 71; Luke 1, 5-25
There were two reasons why Zachariah in the Gospel was lucky. First, he was a priest, belonging to the section of Abia. Priests were estimable in Jewish belief. Second, Elizabeth, his wife was a direct descendant of Aaron, and all of Aaron’s descendants were priests. To marry a descendant of Aaron was highly praiseworthy. But Zachariah and Elizabeth had but one tragedy: they were childless. Jewish culture regards childlessness as a misfortune, belonging to the list of people who were excommunicated from God. Childlessness therefore was a ground for divorce.
With this in mind, it is not difficult for us now to imagine what Zachariah was praying at the temple when the angel Gabriel appeared to him. You see, Zachariah had the time of his life. There were too many priests at that time, and among all the priests, he was chosen to burn incense at the altar where burnt offering of a male lamb was offered. The smoke from the burnt offering and the incense brings the sacrifice to God. It was not unusual that many priests will not be able to burn incense the whole of their lives. And if the lot fell on any one of them, it would be the greatest day of their life. Such was Zachariah’s lot on the day the birth of John the Baptist was announced. It was indeed an answered prayer. However, owing to the fact of old age, Zachariah began to doubt. Who would not among us doubt the possibility of children at an old age? Nonetheless, for God nothing was impossible. Elizabeth in a short time was with child.
We can pause here to look at Zachariah and see what we can glean from him. Zachariah was lucky on many aspects. And like him, we too are lucky on some aspects of our lives. However, like Zachariah, we also have our deepest desire, the thing that we definitely yearn and pray for. It is the petition which we yearn God would answer in His time. So we ask, what do we pray for? Among all our petty needs, what seems to be the constant yearning and desire in our lives? What are answer from God are we waiting for?
Second, we can look at Elizabeth’s barrenness. Barrenness reminds us of a passage from the Gospel of John: “Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away” (John 15, 2). Some of us interpret this passage like the Jews interpreting barrenness: if you don’t bear fruit, you are out of God’s hands, you can’t be a Christian. But if we think more closely: can anyone be out of God’s attention? Every one is within God’s heart, sinner or saint, fruitful or fruitless. Jesus used the phrase, “every branch in Me” almost like how believers are described as “in Christ” (1 Cor 1,30; 2 Cor 5, 17; Eph 2, 10 and Phil 3,9). Many Christians do not bear fruit, but they are nevertheless belonging to Christ; they are in Christ. We know this by heart: we have resolutions at the beginning of the year, and we find ourselves not fulfilling them; we have plans for our lives, but we find the plans only written on paper; and we have been trying on work, but we have not saved on things we intend to acquire. There are things to do, but we have not started any of them.
The Greek word used in John 15 is airo, meaning to ‘take up’ or ‘lift up’ not ‘take away’. Airo was used when the disciples took up the twelve baskets of food in the miracle of the loaves and fish, when Simon took Jesus’ cross, and John the Baptist called Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Airo never means “cut off”. “Lifts up” gives us the image of a vinedresser leaning over a branch and lifts it up. You see for vineyard owners, every branch is important to be cut off. Each branch promises a large number of grapes. When grape branches begin to grow, many of the branches trail from the trellises, down to the ground where it gets coated in mud. When a branch drops to the ground, it does not bear fruit. Thus, the vinedresser “lifts up” (airo) the branch, cleanses it in water (like the cleansing of our sins), and puts or ties it on the trellis. Soon, that branch bears fruit. The barren branch becomes fertile. Elizabeth’s barrenness needs God’s hands to be fertile. Like all those who are childless, the couple cannot do anything about it: it needs God’s intervention.
We all have experiences of barrenness. We are stuck on certain issues in our lives. We cannot let go of an anger or hurt. We have a behavior or an attitude which we have to confront. We know our dark secrets and our sins. We know a certain tendency that we find ourselves powerless to control. We have people in our families we are ashamed of. We have certain experiences in our personal histories that we deny. And all these contribute to our wayward behavior: instead of gaining from these experiences, we find ourselves unable to move on — we cannot function in freedom from them. In addition, just as barrenness means emptiness as a womb unable to fill in a child, we also feel that there are certain things that we lack: that hole in our hearts that needs fulfillment. The emptiness may be the reason why our lives have become static, rigid and lifeless. The emptiness that can only be filled by a person whom we yearn to be with, a friend who is far away and can’t make it home this Christmas, and a relationship that needs repair.
I would like to believe that Zachariah’s inability to speak after his doubt, was God’s way to intervene in his life of barrenness: for him to learn that God keeps his promises, that God listens to our deepest yearnings, that God has plans though his ways may often be painful. Like parents who discipline their child, they have to do it for the good of child. Let me give you an insight I got while working with parents: they said that when they discipline their child, they also get hurt in the process: it is also painful to them. I guess the Lord is also hurt when He disciplines us. In the end, it is the child’s obedience to his parents that frees him from misbehavior, the way Zachariah was freed from his inability when he followed the Lord’s bidding to name his child, John.
So we pray that the Lord may lift us up into our barrenness, and strengthens our trust in His plans.