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Mary in the Bible (Part 7)

September 30, 2006

Zechariah’s Pomp and Doubt Illuminating Mary’s Simplicity and Faith

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Preliminaries
Part 3: Mary in the Gospel of Mark
Part 4: Mary in the Galatians and the Gospel of Matthew
Part 5: The “Firstborn” of Mary
Part 6: The Archangel Gabriel Sent to Mary

We left off noting the differences between Gabriel’s visits to Zechariah and Mary. These contrasts are key to understanding Luke’s intentions for Mary. In my previous post, I noted that the angel Gabriel commits to Mary the message of salvation and the announcement of the Son of God’s birth. Because Mary is the only one who receives explicitly the message of the angel, she is the only witness to the event of Jesus’ miraculous conception. As a woman of first-century Judaism, her word as witness would carry virtually no authority or weight, and yet Luke deliberately depicts the Virgin from Nazareth as the sole witness to the advent of salvation. Thus, from the onset, the Gospel of Luke points to Mary in a unique, special manner whose full meaning is brought out only within the greater scope of the Gabriel’s dual annunciations and the visitation of Mary and Elizabeth.

I have mentioned several times how important it is to keep the contexts and traditions in mind while reading the New Testament, particularly the Gospels. Indeed, the Evangelists as well as Paul assume much from their audiences by way of familiarity with the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament). These New Testament authors quote explicitly from the Hebrew Scriptures, but also they often use signal-words that a first-century Jewish Christians would immediately catch. Unfortunately, most Christians—Protestant and Catholic—do not pick up on this deliberate use of Hebrew images and phrases due to a lack of acquaintance with the Old Testament, its history and its themes. Luke’s Gospel is littered with such images, so it is imperative that the Christian be consciously aware of his style, his references and his narrative structure.

Looking at the event of Gabriel’s appearance to Zechariah, we see that Jewish imagery and traditions abound. Zechariah, we are told, is a priest of the “priestly division of Abijah” (Lk 1:5). Luke imports here a Jewish tradition by mentioning the priestly division to which Zechariah belonged. The “division of Abijah” was the eighth of the twenty-four divisions of the Jewish priesthood. Each priestly division served in the temple of Jerusalem for a week’s duration, twice a year. In Luke’s narrative, Zechariah is entering the sanctuary to burn incense, which was a priestly tradition since the time of Moses. Luke wants us to recall the order of God to Moses from Exodus 30:7-8: “On it (the altar of incense) Aaron shall burn fragrant incense. Morning after morning, when he prepares the lamps, and again in the evening twilight, when he lights the lamps, he shall burn the incense.”

Luke is drawing our attention back to God’s original decree to the people of Israel to construct the sanctuary and its furnishings (Ex 25-30). When we return to these chapters, we gain an understanding of precisely what is happening in Luke 1:5-25. Luke portrays Zechariah performing the priestly duties within the marked dwelling and sanctuary of God. However, there is a holy object conspicuously missing from the sanctuary, an object of which the Jews were aware since the time of their people’s return from Babylonian exile. When the Jews restored the Temple under the leadership of Ezra, they were able to restore the altar of incense (Ezr 3:1-6) and the Temple with its sanctuary (Ezr 3:7-13), but the Ark of Covenant was lost. Thus, since the time of Ezra up to the time of Zechariah, the Ark of the Covenant had not been part of the Jewish Temple worship even though the ark was the center point of the worship (Ex 30:1-6). Luke understands this and implicitly states as much by mentioning all the major features of the sanctuary, with the exception of the Ark. This omission would not be lost on a first century Jew.

But before moving to the theme of the missing Ark, which I will address in my next post, let’s examine the reason why Luke is emphasizing Jewish priestly duties just before directing our attention to the hitherto unknown, unimportant Virgin of Nazareth. For now, let’s focus on Zechariah’s attitude toward the angel Gabriel.

What is striking about Zechariah’s reaction to Gabriel is that Zechariah became troubled at what he saw. Would not a man who is a priest of God, burning incense in the sanctuary, which was understood to be the dwelling-place of the Almighty, be a man of unwavering faith? Why, then, was Zechariah troubled and fearful at the sight of Gabriel (Lk 1:12)? Zechariah’s fear here is striking because we later read that Mary was not frightened or troubled at the appearance of Gabriel, but only at what she heard (Lk 1:28-29)! Lukan irony at its best! Zechariah, the great and prestigious priest of God, ministering in the presence of God in the Temple, is ill-prepared to experience a vision while the lowly Virgin—a common woman!—is not the least bit frightened at the appearance of an angel in the most unusual and unsuspecting of places, the Galilean town of Nazareth.

Zechariah’s doubt and fear is likewise the foil for Mary’s faith and trust when Zechariah doubts the angel’s announcement that Elizabeth shall bear a son: “The Zechariah said to the angel, ‘How shall I know this? For I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years’” (Lk 1:18). Why would a priest, well-formed in the traditions and religion of the Jews, doubt an angel of the Lord? Where have we heard the story of an older man doubting a promise by God to open the womb of his elderly wife? Abraham and Sarah, of course! Luke is again hoping his readers pick up on the irony. Abraham doubted God’s promise that Sarah would bear a son (Gen 17:15-22). Sarah, likewise, doubted the promise (Gen 9:9-15). And yet, God fulfilled this promise with the conception and birth of Isaac (Gen 21:1-8).

Given that there was a scriptural precedent of God opening the womb of an elderly woman who was barren, why did Zechariah, a priest who knew the ways of God, doubt the angel? Did he have any right to doubt God’s promise? Well, we discover that he did not, for the angel punishes Zechariah for his doubt (Lk 1:19-20). It is astounding that a priest God who was aware of Abraham’s doubt over the very same promise and God’s subsequent resolution would himself fail to trust God in the very presence of His angel in the sanctuary! In the case of Mary, ironically, the situation is quite different.

In my next post, I will continue on the Lukan theme of the missing Ark of the Covenant, where I will show how Luke’s narrative of Gabriel’s message to Mary establishes an entirely new sense of God’s presence which is no longer understood in terms of the Jewish sanctuary. Zechariah’s identity, ministry and response set the stage for Luke’s contrasting portrayal of Mary. I suggest that the two annunciations (Zechariah and Mary) are to always be read and understood together as a unity. Luke’s use of Old Testament signs and signals can be quite subtle. They are used with the greatest of subtlety in Luke’s account of Gabriel visit to Mary.


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