Sometimes on Sunday mornings in the Cathedral, during the sermon slot, I find myself thinking about what I might have said if I were up there in that pulpit. It might have been something the preacher said which sparked my train of thought. More often, it’s something I noticed in the readings. This Sunday, I found it very hard to distinguish the preacher’s words, so I went back to a phrase I noticed in the Gospel reading. First, though, here are both readings in full.
“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’ A voice says, ‘Cry out!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever. Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’ See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” (Isaiah 40:1-11; NRSV)
“Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbours and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, ‘No; he is to be called John.’ They said to her, ‘None of your relatives has this name.’ Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing-tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbours, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, ‘What then will this child become?’ For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him. The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.” (Luke 1:57-66,80; NRSV)
The phrase I noticed was “his mother said”… “But his mother said, ‘No; he is to be called John.’ ” (Luke 1:60)
That is, Elizabeth is the first to tell all the neighbours and relatives what her child’s name is to be. I’d never noticed that before. I’d never noticed that she’d even spoken here. My memory may well be faulty, but I don’t remember hearing any preacher on this well-known passage ever mention that she had spoken. And from what I could make out, I don’t think Sunday morning’s preacher mentioned it either.
Elizabeth is clear, and firm. But of course the neighbours and relatives don’t listen to her. She is only the mother. What follows is the bit of pantomime I usually notice in the reading: they motion to the child’s father as though he were deaf rather than dumb. (v62) When he writes ‘His name is John.’ they are all amazed. (v63) Why? Not because his tongue had been freed. That comes next. Is it because he himself writes, and doesn’t use a scribe? Or because he backs up and vindicates Elizabeth? Or because it is very unusual to choose a name not in the family?
Earlier in the story, Luke tells us of the angel’s announcement to Zechariah: “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John.” (v13) Zechariah is the first to hear, but his response is not to believe the angels’s words: “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” (v18) So the angel speaks again: “you will become mute, unable to speak”. (v20)
The beginning of the angel’s judgement is interesting: “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.” (v19) Gabriel is God’s messenger – the literal meaning of angel – and is God’s voice. Zechariah does not believe God’s voice, so God takes his own voice from him “until the day these things occur.” (v20)
Luke does not tell us that the angel visits Elizabeth also. When Zechariah’s time of service in the Temple ends, he goes home. Elizabeth conceives, and presumably gets the message. She still has a voice, and she says “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favourably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” (v25) The things she has to endure from her people!
She still has a voice, but she stays in seclusion for five months. Her pregnancy is hidden from most of her neighbours and relatives until she gives birth safely. While Zechariah is seen but not heard, Elizabeth might be heard but not seen, and her voice is for herself alone.
Except that Mary turns up in her house and greets Elizabeth, and at the sound of Mary’s voice the child in her womb leaps for joy. Then she is filled with the Holy Spirit and her voice becomes the voice for generations: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” (v42) Just as John in Elizabeth’s womb recognises Jesus in Mary’s womb, and responds with a leap for joy, so Elizabeth recognises Jesus in her understanding of the significance of that leap, and responds with a loud cry. Just as John recognises Jesus, so his mother Elizabeth recognises Mary as “the mother of my Lord” and “she who believed”. (vv43,45)
In turn, Mary raises her voice in the great hymn of the Magnificat (vv46-55), but I want to go back even further in the story, to Luke’s introduction of Zechariah and Elizabeth: “Zechariah… belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.” (v5) Both were descendants of Aaron (for Abijah see 1 Chronicles 24:1-19), and Exodus 4 describes how Aaron became the voice of Moses and the voice of God. It’s a digression, but it’s a story that resonates with the Gospel:
“Moses said to the Lord, ‘O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.’ Then the Lord said to him, ‘Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak.’ But he said, ‘O my Lord, please send someone else.’ Then the anger of the Lord was kindled against Moses and he said, ‘What of your brother Aaron the Levite? I know that he can speak fluently; even now he is coming out to meet you, and when he sees you his heart will be glad. You shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth; and I will be with your mouth and with his mouth, and will teach you what you shall do. He indeed shall speak for you to the people; he shall serve as a mouth for you, and you shall serve as God for him.” (Exodus 4:10-16; NRSV)
Both Elizabeth and Zechariah should have a voice. But it is actually Elizabeth’s voice that is passed on to her son. John takes after his mother, not his father. John is the voice that cries out (Isaiah 40:3), and Elizabeth cries out with Mary, while Zechariah is the one struck dumb. John recognises Jesus, and Elizabeth recognises Jesus and Mary. And we see at the very end of the Gospel reading that John “was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.” (v80) John is hidden in the wilderness until his time comes, and Elizabeth is hidden in seclusion until her time comes.
So no, John is not named Zechariah after his father, but as “his mother said”.
And the application for my listeners, or you my readers? Well, Elizabeth experienced it after giving birth, Mary Magdalene experienced it after the Resurrection, and ‘hepeating’ is still going strong today. So in a nutshell… Men, just stop it. Until they do, women I suggest that, like Elizabeth and Mary, you try a bit of amplification.