Day 18, The Silence of the Priest – Reflection, Questions, and Art During Advent
About the Art: Tintoretto, The Birth of John the Baptist, c. 1554, Oil on canvas, 181 x 266 cm, The Hermitage, St. Petersburg.
When the angel told Zechariah that his wife Elizabeth would have a son who would prepare the way for the Messiah’s coming, the old priest struggled to believe it. He was caught between what he knew of the world and the miraculous possibilities of God. Elizabeth, like Abraham’s wife Sarah, was old—well past child-bearing years. When the priest doubted the angel, the Lord took away his ability to speak until the child was born. When the priest at last spoke, it was to pronounce the name of his son—John.
Tintoretto’s colorful composition includes eight women, one man, and one baby. He captures that moment when Zechariah regains the ability to speak. The priest’s words are directed to the One who struck him dumb. He offers a song of praise. Mary holds the child while a wet nurse feeds him. The weary, aged Elizabeth lies exhausted in her bed. Servants and friends tend to both mother and child.
Tintoretto gives us a busy scene of a familiar part of the Nativity story—one where each individual could get lost in the commotion. But each person present in the scene was part of the greater narrative. Mary, Elizabeth, and Zechariah each had very unique interactions with God during the Messiah’s coming.
All three central figures have stories to tell—things pondered and treasured in their hearts. We are no different. Though we each fall into a greater story, one that is not ultimately about us, we each have our own unique stories to tell about how we have encountered God along the way.
“‘Don’t be afraid,’ Gabriel said. It was a small comfort, but Zechariah had no time to think as the angel continued, ‘The cry of your heart has been heard.’
“Which cry? His priestly prayers for God to deliver his people? His yearning for a sacrifice that would sufficiently atone for the sins of his countrymen? That cry? Or was it the sorrow he shared so intimately with the wife of his youth concerning their inability to have children? It hurt his heart just to think of it. He recalled the two of them, young, in love, and ready to become a family. But something was wrong, something with one or the other or both. Who could say? All he knew was that, try as they might, God had shut Elizabeth’s womb. And now in their old age, bearing a child would require a miracle.
“‘Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son. You’re to give him the name John.’
“The aging priest’s heart leapt. He wanted to believe, but why would the angel appear in the temple to tell him this? And why now? Zechariah grew up with the stories of Abraham and Sarah and Isaac and Rebekah. He knew God could and sometimes did open barren wombs, giving him a flicker of hope that maybe his story would be like these. Maybe he too was being invited into this wonderful tale of God’s loving-kindness. But what if he allowed himself to hope only to be disappointed?
“‘Listen, priest. This son of yours will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.’
“It wasn’t just his cry for a son that the Lord had answered. God was responding to the cry of his people for deliverance. He meant to use this son to prepare the way for the coming of his Redeemer.”
The story of Zechariah and Elizabeth is about two people who are not exactly in the middle of the Nativity story, but are nevertheless deeply involved. Luke gives us a beautiful narrative thread where we see how the coming of Christ worked its way into their home and lives. But Luke only gives us a fraction of what there is to say about these two. What are some parts of your own life story where you have seen God work that others may never have occasions to know about?
What are the deepest cries of your heart you long to see the Lord answer? In what ways are those desires already fulfilled in the first coming of Christ? In what ways do you feel you are still waiting?
 Ramsey, Russ. Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative. Nashville: Rabbit Room Press, 2011. pgs. 130-131.