Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Language of Advent

This morning I woke up early for band practice before church. The sun rose, as it seemed to me, even earlier, unaffected by the numbers on my alarm clock and the recent time change reflected there. It filtered new rays of light through a canopy of misty clouds, sending with them what may be the last remains of the season's warmth. A cool breeze blew through branches overhead, teasing the leaves still holding fast to near-winter branches while their less tenacious rusty-brown brethren rustled together across the driveway.

I stood there for a moment, looking and listening. A shaggy black dog shifted down the street, sniffing from mailbox to mailbox. He found nothing, the squirrels nestled away in their nests. The birds had abandoned the trees like the leaves, taking their early morning canticles with them. There was no other stirring, no other sound. The wind whispered a hush over the neighborhood like the Spirit silencing Zechariah when he doubted the angel.

Zechariah was one of about 18,000 Jewish priests serving in the years leading up to the birth of Jesus. Every year, he served a regular term of two weeks in the temple, during which priests were selected by lot for special duties. This happened to be the year Zechariah was chosen to go into the temple to burn incense. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and Zechariah would have a once-in-a-lifetime experience. As the anticipated day drew near, Zechariah studied his role well. He knew exactly what to do. He knew the procedures to cleanse himself for service. He knew just how to enter the chamber. He knew the proper way to light the incense. He knew exactly the words he was to use in prayer. And when the time came, Zechariah had said everything perfectly according to plan, until the angel appeared.

"You will have a son," the angel announced. Forgetting his national history, the aged and childless Zechariah stammered out his only unrehearsed utterance doubt of the angel's extraordinary promise. It proved to be an unfortunate deviance from the script. As a result, Zechariah would not be able to speak another word for over nine months until the birth of his promised son. He would be able only to listen as others celebrated the miracle of his wife Elizabeths conception. With a mute tongue, his ears would ring all the louder with the news that the promise had been true. In the absence of words, he would saturate in the silent faithfulness of God. And when Elizabeth's son was delivered like a coal to Zechariah's lips, his first words would now echo the angel: "His name is John."

Zechariah was not just chosen to burn incense. He was chosen to announce the one who would announce the long-awaited coming of the Christ. It is the arrival of Christ that we celebrate in the season of Advent, the very name of which means "arrival." But as any mother will tell you, arriving is always preceded by waiting. Waiting is the hard lesson of Advent. And while Elizabeth and Mary were learning the lesson of Advent, Zechariah was learning the language of Advent: silence.

Advent will teach us to wait for Jesus if we will allow it, but it will require silent lips and hearts. And we cannot learn silence without stopping to listen. We simply are not able to take true hold of the promise in our current clutter, in our rote routines and rituals. Yet if we give momentary pause, we will see that even creation is slowing down to listen. The trees, perhaps soon heavy and white, will bend their burdened branches to the earth as if to eavesdrop. They may catch wind of the promise that even as the last leaf falls to the frosted earth, seeds also have fallen.

For now, waiting

in faith

and silence. 

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