This morning in Philadelphia, a light snow is falling over Mardi Gras. The rushers are still rushing, the panhandlers are still panhandling, the laughers are still laughing, and the honkers are still honking. The city does what it typically does on Tuesday. Yet it feels like we’re on the brink of something. Maybe it was dragging myself out of bed to get fastnachts at Beiler’s bakery that did it, or finding myself in front of the church I intend to enter tomorrow but not today. Whatever it is, as Roald Dahl says in James and the Giant Peach, it feels like something is just about to happen.
I’m taking a leisurely journey this season through J. B. Phillips’s translation of the Gospel of Luke. I wish I could claim a family connection to J. B. Phillips—the truth is, we Phillipses are everywhere, and it’s just about as tough to find one that has some actual genealogical bond to you as it is with Smiths or Johnsons. I like to think of him as a spiritual great-uncle, anyway, as his rendering of the New Testament has now awakened and refreshed two generations of Phillips men: my father and me. He once commented that working on his translation felt like working on a house’s wiring while the power was still on. That kind of dangerous life comes out in the reading, where it does indeed feel that something is about to happen, and as familiar as the story is, perhaps anything could happen.
Luke has the reputation of being the historian among the Evangelists, the one concerned with sources and dates and a truth related to what later biographers and historians will care about. But he follows models like Thucydides, who also insists that he has the very best sources, then proceeds to hide them and bring his own opinions to the fore, the most famous passage of his masterwork The Peloponnesian War being a great speech by Pericles that scholars generally agree never passed the orator’s physical lips. Luke also loves to put words in people’s mouths, and the songs of Zacharias, Elizabeth, Mary, Simeon, and the angels are prime examples of this practice. Each of the songs perfectly speaks to the moments of the story they inhabit, they give voice to the characters, but they also relive the classic rhetorical moves of the Psalms, of the songs of Hannah and Moses and the Prophets. And Phillips takes us into Luke’s truth-with-imagination style right away with “The story begins.”
The story begins in the days when Herod was king of Judea with a priest called Zacharias.
This part of the story is well-known, but Phillips reminds us here that it’s a story, that the rhythm of “Once upon a time” has a place even in flesh-and-blood history, and perhaps nowhere more so than in a narrative that Frederick Buechner has described as “comedy, tragedy, and fairy tale.” Zacharias is on duty in the Temple and draws the lot that makes him the designated priest to burn the incense while the faithful pray outside. He’s performing the proper rituals when the angel Gabriel appears and scares the bejeebers out of him. Gabriel then announces that Zacharias’s prayer for a child has been heard, and that he will have a son named John who will be one of the greatest of men, in the tradition of Elijah, carrying out a special mission for God. Any priest should be thrilled to get this message directly from God’s mouth (more or less). But, as we know he will, Zacharias questions the angel, “How can this be?”
Poor Zacharias. He gets stuck being the foil to Mary’s faithful submission when Gabriel makes his next visit to speak of a special son-to-be. But in my reading this week, I’ve found a new sympathy for this old priest. He had likely prayed that prayer for decades, and probably had given up praying it decades before as his wife Elizabeth went through menopause and they both faced the death of living for God with no family to continue their life. That prayer, so far as Zacharias was concerned, had gone into God’s dead-letter office ages ago. All he could do was live on in faith, waiting for the rest of death and clinging to a God who never seemed to show up. If he even remembered praying that prayer, it was not with warm fuzzies. So when Gabriel appears, we can forgive Zacharias for not immediately thinking, “Oh, goodie, just like Abraham!” Because he was a man of prayer, after all, and he does respond immediately, out of the hurt and doubt and sense of abandonment that had slowly seeped into his heart.
So, yes, the angel is annoyed that he doesn’t get the right response. When Zacharias says, “How can I know this?” the first thing the messenger can think to say is: “I am Gabriel.” Figure it out, man. I’m an angel. I’m the mouthpiece of God. My speaking equals truth, and you’re standing in the designated talking-to-God place. And then comes the consequence, which I’ve always read as a punishment, but in my recent reading I’m not so sure.
Because you do not believe what I have said, you shall live in silence.
Zacharias loses the ability to speak, and possibly also to hear (as his family members make signs to him to communicate at John’s naming ceremony). He stays that way for most of a year. He has to explain to Elizabeth what the angel said, what their future will be, what promises they have to hold onto, while enveloped in silence. And then he waits.
And that’s where Phillips’s translation shows the beauty of it all. “You shall live in silence.” It’s not simply a loss of speech or hearing; this is an alternative way of life that Zacharias is thrust into as preparation for John’s birth. All the hurt, the ugliness of his life’s struggles that bubbled up in the priest’s response to an answer come “too late” speak to the healing that he needs. Simply having a son won’t take care of that. Thankfully, the son isn’t born the next week. Zacharias is put on a nine-month retreat by God, left in the wilderness of his own thoughts and feelings to find his God again. He needs that silence in order to have his heart in order for the astonishing next chapter of his life, the one that involves raising a prophet. He had likely memorized huge portions of Scripture; these would come to his mind continually during those silent months. Silent prayer and meditation were the order of his day, as in the Psalms—perhaps his tears also became his bread for a time. Living in silence was undoubtedly hard. It was also one of the best things that could have happened to him.
Because while he lived in silence, the Spirit was moving. The house got very noisy when cousin Mary arrived, and Elizabeth and Mary exchanged shouts and songs of praise over what God was doing in them. Whether he could hear all of that, he would have witnessed changes in his wife, in the feeling of the house, and eventually in himself as the appointed hour approached. And when he follows his wife in faithful obedience to the angel’s prophecy (“His name is John”), he begins himself “speaking like a prophet,” exclaiming:
Blessings on the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has turned his face toward his people and set them free!
Out of the wilderness of his silence, Zacharias has found a new song, one loaded with the venerable tropes of the Hebrew Scriptures and projected onto a glorious future that includes his son, his nation, and his God.
And that is the promise that Lent holds out for us today. We prepare to fast, to abstain, to pray—what it adds up to is that we prepare to live in silence. Silence of sound. Silence of taste. Silence of body and mind. We face the unanswered prayers, the hurts and doubts. And we wait. And in that waiting, the promises grow like seeds. The brownfields that I pass on my walks in South Philly shall spring up with blades of green. New birth comes, prophecies take on lives of their own, something horribly familiar called Crucifixion transpires, and something crazy called Resurrection happens. Living into silence is not something to fear. It’s not a punishment. It’s the path that Zacharias speaks of at the glorious end of his new song:
Because the heart of our God is full of mercy toward us, the first light of Heaven shall come to visit us—to shine on those who lie in darkness and under the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the path of peace.
- Word from Porter Street, #3 (new series): Brett Foster, pt. 2
- Poetic Faith, 2016 edition: Introduction