Today’s Gospel is the annunciation of the birth of John the Baptist. When the priest read it this morning at Mass, this phrase jumped out at me: “your prayer has been heard.” This is a key phrase to understanding Zechariah’s doubt.
Imagine if you had been praying for something for years and years, and suddenly you see an angel standing before you telling you that finally, after all this time, God is going to grant your prayer. Wouldn’t you be overwhelmed with joy and happiness, and maybe even jump up and down? I would!
But not Zechariah. For some reason not told to us, he wouldn’t believe it and raised objections. We don’t know what was in his heart, but because he was punished, something in his heart must have gone awry. Was God just being vindictive here? No, because the punishment had a purpose. It was to teach him something. What?
This gospel passage plays off the ideas of speaking and listening in a quite interesting way. First, Zechariah’s prayer was heard, so he had already spoken to God about what was in his heart. But then Zechariah couldn’t hear God’s response. So Gabriel—who obviously is a pretty tough angel—says “I was sent to speak to you and to announce to you this good news. But now you will be speechless and unable to talk until the day these things take place.”
In Dante’s Divine Comedy, the punishments of people always match their sin. So it is for Zechariah. Because he wouldn’t listen, he will get to know what it’s like to have people not listen to him because now he can’t speak. Perhaps God wanted to teach Zechariah—and us—that prayer is a relationship. It’s not about us making demands of God to be fulfilled in exactly the way we want. That would turn God into some kind of big vending machine in the sky.
In prayer, instead, we bring our needs to God and make our requests. But then we need to hold that request before the Lord, and talk to him about it. We can even use our imagination to picture what the response to our request might be and hold that picture before God, but in a way that allows him to change it.
We hear no more from Zechariah until John was born. But we do hear in this gospel from Elizabeth, who praised God, “So has the Lord done for me at a time when he has seen fit to take away my disgrace before others.”And what of John himself? Luke later describes him, quoting Isaiah, as "the voice of one crying in the desert..." The son of a speechless father became a mighty voice to prepare the way of the Lord. Such are the ways of God.