Of Women, Priests, and Angels
… or why the Angel Gabriel struck the Priest Zechariah and not (the Virgin) Mary dumb, although both questioned his startling news that they would be the parents of extraordinary sons.
Zechariah doubted the announcement because his wife was “advanced in age,” Mary because she had not “known” a man.
But Gabriel robbed Zechariah of the power of speech, so he couldn’t pronounce the blessing on the people after leaving the temple, yet left Mary free pronounce the Magnificat to Elizabeth, Zechariah’s wife, soon to become the mother of John the Baptist. Why such a harsh punishment for Zechariah, a priest in the temple, father of “the forerunner,” and a free pass for an ordinary girl?
Gabriel told Zechariah very clearly why he was being punished: “because you did not believe me” after Z asked, “how shall I know that this is so?” This meant he was asking for a sign, for Gabriel’s divine credentials. Mary, on the other hand, who obviously knew the facts of life but was still a virgin, simply asked a question: “how can this be, since I have never known a man?” Although Gabriel’s startling announcement that she would imminently bear a son clearly didn’t fit the facts of her life, she did not question his authority as God’s messenger.
It’s one thing to be startled by the appearance of an angel (although you’d think they’d be welcome in the temple!) but Zechariah’s fear and astonishment foreshadow Jesus’ warnings always to be on call. He tells us to be awake, aware, receptive, obedient, when the message/messenger shows up. The fact that Gabriel came to Zechariah while he was lighting the incense, performing his priestly duties, and yet Z still doubted, seems to be a commentary on the staleness of the hierarchy and established religion’s receptivity to prophecy, to be always on call.
Mary, obviously not a priest, not a male “insider” with access to the temple — she would have been one of those who would have had to pray outside — although deeply troubled and pondering when Gabriel appeared, told him she would go for it. She accepted the angel’s risky proposition, with all its possibly fatal consequences. The villagers of Nazareth could have stoned her to death, Taliban style, once her pregnancy started to show. She had a lot to lose by saying yes to her appointment with the Holy Spirit.
The moral of these parallel stories seems to be we get in trouble when we ask God for proof, when we rely on rationality and ritual to see us through, rather than joyfully following the divine instructions delivered by unlikely, though authoritative angels.
Proofs of God’s existence (“signs”), of his mercy, evidence of his benevolent interventions proliferate in our everyday lives. Creation itself is an extraordinary, ongoing, relentless, miracle. The paradox of God’s power and communicative action is that we are so saturated in it we no longer identify it as such but take it for granted.
Our life itself is the “sign” Zechariah demands. The unlikely miracles of friendship, the passion of lovers, the endless sacrifice of parents for their children, the kindness of strangers, are all the divine credentials we need. What else are the galaxies, deep space, and black holes but God’s body? Incredulity, like Mary’s is fine: “how can this be?” It is to be expected that we will be startled, ponder, and be deeply troubled, as she was, but ultimately we are to say “fiat” (bring it on!) as Mary did.
Gabriel striking Zechariah mute made the point Jesus makes throughout the gospels, that the old order of insiders (the priests and scholars) just doesn’t get it and should hold their tongues, or at least learn to listen. The new order, teenagers, “sinful” women, children, the blind, foreigners, the despised, do get it. The word of God seems fall straight into their ears and their hearts and they get on with the mission they’re given, no matter how improbable, risky or risqué!