Poor Zachariah. He was cranky one day at work—not enough coffee—and he just wanted to get his job done. His hands held a stick aflame, ready to burn incense in the temple. He was interrupted by an angel—they tend to hang out there—this one was talking crazy, the whole thing surreal. One sarcastic retort and he was doomed to nine months of silence—no voice from the time he left the temple to the day he named his son, John.
What was it like for this father? He was an old man who had long since gave up hope for an heir to see his pregnant wife. In his silence, he remembered the angel’s words:
He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the LORD. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the LORD their God. And he will go on before the LORD, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous-to make ready a people prepared for the LORD.Luke 1:14-18
I imagine the joy he had the day he first held his son! The words of William Blake’s Infant Joy come to mind:
I have no name
I am but two days old.—
What shall I call thee?
I happy am
Joy is my name,—
Sweet joy befall thee!
Sweet joy but two days old,
Sweet joy I call thee;
Thou dost smile.
I sing the while
Sweet joy befall thee.
It is different for us dads. I remember when my wife was pregnant with our first child, a daughter. Of course I was excited and eager to meet this little one. But she was not inside me, pushing my organs aside, making room for herself to grow. She didn’t widen my hips or make me tired or make me gain weight (though I did). My wife felt her kicks and prods a long time before I was even able too. There were ways that this child was still abstract to me. I worried as a dad that I just wasn’t feeling enough and wondered how I could love this stranger.
Then labor and delivery. I spent the night at the hospital listening to our baby’s heartbeat quicken and slow with every contraction, comforting and encouraging where I could, but feeling helpless and useless as my wife pushed out a tiny human. Then I held her, and was instantly smitten. I knew that I would do anything and everything for this child. My heart grew. My joy was full.
An incident at work left Zechariah speechless for three-quarters of a year. He watched, he waited, he regretted his stupid reply to God’s messenger. Then the day came. He held his little one. He fell in love. The child was joy and delight to him. He wondered at the angel’s promise and the man his little boy would become.
On the 8th day, they came to circumcise him. Elizabeth explained to Rabbi that the child’s name would be John. They silenced her and went instead to Zechariah who wrote on a tablet, “He is to be called John.” Suddenly Zechariah’s words returned and he began praising God:
Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David
(as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
salvation from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us—
to show mercy to our ancestors
and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
and to enable us to serve him without fear
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
A father’s hope and joy—the frustrating months of silence swallowed up in praise.
The Advent promise is that our tears will be turned to joy, that shalom awaits us, that the Day of the Lord is near and our hope is secure.
And yet, like Zechariah it is still abstract to us. We are still here. Our bodies have not changed to make room. Our day of joy is coming soon.
Sweet joy befall thee