By Nancy Hastings Sehested
In the days of King Herod…everyone was exhausted. Everyone was overwhelmed, except maybe the king and the empire investors who were benefitting from the reign of inequity and injustice. Everybody else was worn down by the endless horrors and heartaches.
The ancient and familiar stories of Advent and Christmas still speak truth to our experience. They happen in view of the ghastly abuse of power of Rome while vividly shining a light on the subversive and surprising ways of the Holy One. Who could imagine the unlikely cast in God’s unfolding drama in bringing hope into the world?
This year I find myself resonating most with old Zechariah. I certainly can find a blessed companionship with Elizabeth. I can still sing the bold revolutionary song with Mary. Hanging out with the shepherds on a hillside and hearing angelic voices of peace is heavenly. But Zechariah, that off-stage character who is not included in Christmas pageants or portrayed in a creche, is the one who speaks to me. It is his silence that sounds an echo in my soul.
In the days of King Herod, when all hell was breaking loose, there was a priest named Zechariah, a name that means “God remembers.” He wondered if his name could ever ring true. He was aging. His prayers for a child had not been answered. It was a personal sadness and a public shame. Expectation was replaced with resignation.
He was barren of hope yet still performed the routines of his priestly duties. Then during an ordinary ritual of offering the prayers of the people, the extraordinary happened. At the altar a divine messenger popped up with the startling news that Elizabeth would birth a child. The angel announced that his life was not over. He would even know “joy and gladness” with a community-wide rejoicing. This baby would be great like the prophet Elijah and “turn the hearts of parents toward their children,” and prepare people to receive God’s newness. He couldn’t imagine it. He was stunned into silence.
With Zechariah we enter into the land of disorientation where old words cannot convey new experiences. We can’t get our bearings in this pandemic. The customary ways of doing things don’t fit the new reality. But perhaps our word-fail is more than learning the new language of virtual worship services and online meetings. The angel is appearing at the altars of our hopelessness to announce the birthing of new life. Our inner landscape is being rearranged to see possibility where we never imagined it. The new is gestating within us and around us. Our uncomfortable silence is the doorway that ushers us into the holy of holies of spiritual transformation.
Our silence can be a blessed opportunity for others to speak. Whose voices can we hear now? Too many voices have been silenced by all the centuries of the Herods of harm and humiliation. As the angel foretold, are we able to hear the children now too? Listening is preparing our own hearts to receive the Spirit anew.
As I preached into our empty sanctuary recorded for a virtual service, I ached for the physical presence of our congregation. My words felt puny and unable to match the stirrings of my soul. I was not numb. I was overwhelmed with all that my words failed to communicate. After the small worship team left the room, I sat alone in the silence to listen to my inner restlessness. I pictured our members who were caring valiantly for their children, their elders, their neighbors, their college students, their teens, their spouse. I saw them summoning courage to meet the ever-changing demands of work and home. I remembered their birthday balloons at the window of the rehab center and their food left on the doorstep where illness dwelled. I recalled their faces on the tiny screens newly emboldened to wrestle with the challenges of racial injustice, white privilege and social inequities. I knew their efforts to bridge the political divide in their extended families and in their communities. They were encouraging the faint-hearted and extending mercy to themselves and others.
With all those images swirling, I imagined our little circle among circles and circles of people around the world bearing forth God’s vision for the common good. I looked around for the Angel Gabriel who never seemed to be at a loss for words. His persistent voice spoke into the silence. “Be not afraid” of this darkness. It is the womb of God’s new creation.
Hope is not a solitary practice. It is communal. Hope looks to the past to remember God’s presence and deliverance. It looks in the present to see the breakthroughs of God’s justice and mercy now. Hope expands and grows as surely as the stretching womb of a woman carrying a baby.
If my words return at the next birthing, I hope I can speak with the poetic flair of Zechariah:
By the tender mercies of God the dawn from on high has broken upon us to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet in the way of peace.
Through all our silent nights, God remembers.
Nancy Hastings Sehested serves as co-pastor of congregational partner Circle of Mercy Congregation in Asheville, N.C. She is one of the founding members of the Alliance of Baptists and has pastored churches in Atlanta, Memphis, and Asheville. She has been married to Ken Sehested since the Enlightenment. They have two wonderful daughters, four delightful grandchildren and one incorrigible mutt.