Advent, Reflections

The Skepticism of Zechariah

Readings for Tuesday of the Third Week of Advent

Gabriel’s words really stuck out to me today for some reason: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because Your prayer has been heard.” 

Evidently, Zechariah had been praying that his wife Elizabeth would bear him a son — maybe for a very long time! And now — it was finally happening! His prayer was coming true. His highest hopes and anticipations were being realized before his very eyes — in the heart of the Temple, no less, as he offered the evening incense… a privilege he may have had only once in his life! This moment of all moments, God chooses to send his angel to bring the best news Zechariah could have possibly hoped for — and how does he respond?

With skepticism. With unbelief. And ultimately, with distrust of God’s promise:

“How shall I know this?” he says, “For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”

As a result, Zechariah is rendered literally speechless until his son, John, is born.

It’s tempting to defend Zechariah, isn’t it? Wasn’t he being totally reasonable? Wasn’t he just being realistic? Perhaps at a natural level, yes… but in light of the fact that he and his wife Elizabeth had been praying fervently for this very grace for so long, we get a fuller picture of why God held him so accountable for his deep skepticism. On the surface it seems harsh, but look deeper: he had been praying for this exact gift from the Lord, and yet failed to recognize its fulfillment.

In the end, doubt prevents us from truly receiving the immense gifts God desires to bless us with. Imagine for a moment a little kid on Christmas day rushing down to see all the gifts under the tree. He sees all the packages beautifully wrapped, and he’s filled with excitement… but then, for some reason he suddenly doubts that any of those are really meant for him. So the child walks away without opening a single gift. This is kind of what happened in this scene with Zechariah.

A disordered reluctance to believe blocks our hearts off from rejoicing in the Lord’s will for our lives! God has wrapped so many gifts for each one of us — do we have the faith and courage to receive them at the proper time and open them up? We please God by receiving His gifts. St. Augustine put it this way:

[God] wants us to exercise our desire through our prayers, so that we may be able to receive what he is preparing to give us. His gift is very great indeed, but our capacity is too small and limited to receive it.

All of us have intentions and desires, worries and hopes deep in our hearts that we present to God each day. And sometimes it’s tempting to think God isn’t really listening all that attentively, so we begin to not even expect an answer. The question is: when the day finally comes that the Lord answers that prayer, will we believe it is really happening? Or will our capacity be too small and limited at that moment to receive God’s good gifts?

Contrast Zechariah’s doubtful response with that of his wife, Elizabeth, who says: “So has the Lord done for me at a time when he has seen fit.”

In this statement, Elizabeth shows us the profound humility of waiting for the Lord to answer in His own time and in His own way — “when He sees fit.” She has had to wait just as long as Zechariah for her prayer to be answered, yet she has spent that time very well… trusting that the Lord was helping her every step of the way, preparing her to finally receive what she looked forward to.

The Lord never ignores our prayers. We must wait with vigilance, therefore, like Elizabeth — fully expecting to receive an answer from God and trusting that He’ll help us receive it well. Our prayers must never be empty hopes or defeated desires. “I’ll tell God what I want and need, but He’ll probably not bother answering my tiny little prayer.” No! Christians pray with boldness and with total abandonment to God’s will. Jesus promises us, “Ask, and you shall receive.” God is preparing to give us so many gifts. Let’s receive them with faith and trust.

About Anthony Ferguson

Anthony Ferguson is a seminarian discerning the priesthood of Jesus Christ for the Catholic Diocese of Richmond. He is currently in Third Theology at Theological College in Washington DC.
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