Your son will be your joy and delight and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord; he must drink no wine, no strong drink; even from his mother’s womb he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, and he will bring back many of the Israelites to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him to reconcile fathers to their children and the disobedient to the good sense of the upright, preparing for the Lord a people fit for him (1:14-17).
Zechariah and Elizabeth had longed for a child. A child will be born to them, says the angel, but such a child as they could not possibly have imagined. The angel declares that their son will be “great in the sight of the Lord… in the spirit and power of Elijah.” Their son will have a mission for all Israel: to bring them back to their God, to prepare for the Lord a people fit for him (cf. 1: 12-17).
This angelic utterance is really a rather long one, containing information that can only have been completely mind-boggling for Zechariah. Perhaps readers of this post have heard this story many times, and through familiarity have lost the sense of its being beyond fathoming – this prophecy from the mouth of a powerful and numinous being. Certainly for Zechariah, it is all too big to absorb. At first he is silent while the angel delivers his astonishing message.
When Zechariah does find power of speech, he comes out with the words that have earned him such criticism through the centuries: “How can I know this? I am an old man and my wife is getting on in years” (1:18). I rather doubt I’d have performed any better than Zechariah, and would probably have done far worse, but note well: this was an angel, after all, and angels generally know what they are talking about. Zechariah, however, seems to think that the angel might not realise how old he and his wife are. Even with my bias in favour of Zechariah, I must confess that I can’t help smiling here. It is almost as though he is asking the angel to check his divine instructions and make sure he has not come to the wrong temple and spoken to the wrong man.
So, what do we see here? Zechariah blurts out a question that is pretty daft in the circumstances. But is he really so bad after all? His question shows at least that he is a stable character, not easily diverted from the path of righteousness. And it has already been established that Zechariah is a good and upright man in the sight of God. He is not someone to curry the favour of men (or angels), or to give his consent, even to an angel, without deep conviction of heart. He is a man of depth. He wants to understand what is happening, but he is out of his depth now. He is used to having his prayer unanswered, we know. But he is not used to that same prayer now being answered.
John baptising Jesus – Zakopane Basilica of the Holy Family, Poland.