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Zechariah and Elizabeth: Late Advent Special Personalities

December 8, 2010

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Zechariah names his newborn son. Photo taken at St. John the Baptist in Savage

Meet The Characters

Zechariah was a priest of the Temple in Jerusalem (Lk 1:5); his wife was Elizabeth (Lk 1:5); he was a righteous and holy man (Lk 1:6); and he was older with no children (Lk 1:7) which was a source of considerable embarrassment in ancient society.  On one occasion he was chosen by lot from among the other priests to offer incense in the Holy of Holies (Lk 1:9), a privilege most priests never experienced in their lifetime.  While he was in the sanctuary he was blessed by the appearance of an angel (Lk 1:11) which is a rarity in the gospels.  The only others to receive angelic appearances were Mary (Lk 1:26-38); Joseph (Mt 1:20; 2:13,19); the shepherds (Lk 2:9-15); Jesus (Mt 4:11; Mk 1:13; Lk 22:43); and Mary Magdalene and the other women (Mt 28:2; Lk 24:4; Jn 20:12). The angel announced that he would be the father of John the Baptist (Lk 1:13-17), but he was so concerned with his limitations, namely his age, that he doubted that God’s promise could come true (Lk 1:18).  In spite of years of faithful service, God penalized Zechariah for his mistake by striking him speechless throughout Elizabeth’s pregnancy (Lk 1:20).  To Zechariah’s credit, he obeyed God, had relations with his wife, and she conceived.  When it came time to name the child, he followed the angel’s instructions (Lk 1:13) and insisted that the baby’s name would be John (Lk 1:63), not his own name.  He is remembered for offering one of the most beautiful praise prayers in all of Scripture, Zechariah’s Canticle (Lk 1:68-79).

Elizabeth was the wife of Zechariah.   She and her husband belonged to the priestly class (Lk 1:5).  She was righteous and holy (Lk 1:6) and filled with the Holy Spirit (Lk 1:41).  She reached old age without bearing a child (Lk 1:7), but then conceived a son (Lk 1:24), went into a five-month period of seclusion (Lk 1:24), and then gave birth to John the Baptist (Lk 1:57).  Elizabeth was the first person in the gospel to call Jesus “Lord” (Lk 1:43).  Elizabeth was Mary’s relative (Lk 1:36), but it is not known whether she was an aunt, cousin, or some other relation.


Biblical Characters that help us prepare for Christmas. Zechariah and Elizabeth are two key figures in the first chapter of Luke’s Infancy Narrative (Lk 1:5-2:52), and they play prominent roles in the gospel readings for the weekday Masses immediately before Christmas.  The gospel for December 19 is the announcement of the birth of John the Baptist by Gabriel to Zechariah (Lk 1:5-25), December 21 is Mary’s Visitation to Elizabeth (Lk 1:39-45), December 23 is the birth of the Baptist (Lk 1:57-66), and December 24 is Zechariah’s Canticle (Lk 1:67-79).  The Visitation is also the gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Advent in Year C.


Two Annunciations, two very different responses.
The archangel Gabriel announced the birth of John the Baptist to Zechariah and the birth of Jesus to Mary.  Both asked, “How can this be?”, but the mindset behind their questions was different.  Zechariah did not believe Gabriel’s words and objected that he was an old man and that his wife was advanced in years (Lk 1:18,20), while Mary trusted, despite her confusion, and replied, “May it be done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38).  The stories of these two responses are placed side-by-side to compare the depth of faith and the quality of response to a divine proclamation.  Zechariah doubted and resisted.  Mary trusted and agreed.  God was pleased with Mary’s faith, but Zechariah was struck speechless.

Pause to examine. Luke often presents pairs of characters such as Mary and Martha or the repentant criminal and the abusive criminal, and he does so to get us thinking.  Which character am I more like?  Which one should I be like?  Zechariah and Mary present us with an opportunity to examine ourselves.  Do I doubt?  Do I resist God and God’s plan?  Or, Am I steadfast in faith?  Am I open and eager to do God’s will?

Two Conceptions, two very different miracles. Elizabeth was old and barren, Mary was young and fertile.  It is an incredible miracle for someone beyond their child-bearing years to conceive by natural means, but it is an even greater miracle for a virgin to conceive by the power of the Holy Spirit.  The stories of the two conceptions are told side-by-side as a study in contrast intended to show their relative importance.  Elizabeth’s conception was absolutely remarkable, but Mary’s conception was the greatest of all.

Pause to ponder. The conceptions and births of Jesus and John the Baptist were miracles.  Both are mysteries and matters of faith.  It is beneficial to take time and meditate on the miraculous nature of these events.  Our prayer will lead us to a deeper appreciation of these awesome mysteries and move us to a more profound spiritual celebration of Christmas.

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