In her New York Times op-ed, “Looking for Light on the Longest Night of the Year,” Margaret Renkl, writing at the beginning of the winter solstice on December 21, the shortest day and longest night of the year, remarked that “since long before Jews began to celebrate Hanukkah and Christians began to celebrate Christmas, ancient peoples across the Northern Hemisphere marked the arrival of the winter solstice [with] rituals meant to summon the sun or rejoice at its rebirth.” Observing the candlelight flickering from the menorah merging with the campfire she and her friends gathered around to celebrate Hanukkah, she thought about “how comforting it is that this season of lights always coincides with the darkest time of the year.”
The first time I read the Canticle of Zechariah I remember feeling a little bit stunned. I’d learned in my elementary school religion class that Zechariah questioned the angel and lost his voice. Compared to Mary’s unreserved and perfect Fiat, our favorite Jewish priest kind of botched the whole angel-appearing-to-you thing. We were told that he was finally able to speak when John was born but we never really covered just what he says. So his Canticle, this beautiful song of love and trust in God, came as somewhat of a shock. Could this really be the same man? Is this the same Zechariah that doubted God’s word only a few verses ago?
Today’s gospel describes the birth and circumcision of John the Baptist. What strikes me today in this familiar story is the transformation that happens to the father, Zechariah. When the angel Gabriel first appeared to Zechariah in the temple, telling him that his prayers have been answered and that his barren wife will bear a child who will be a great prophet named John, Zechariah responds in disbelief, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” Zechariah’s response, at first glance, seems to be not too different from the Blessed Virgin Mary’s initial response at the Annunciation: “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” The subtle distinction between Zechariah’s “How shall I know this?” and Mary’s “How will this be?” makes all the difference. While Mary acknowledges that God’s plan will happen, though she does not understand how, Zechariah doubts the veracity of the message brought by the angel. Zechariah is effectively asking, “Why on earth should I believe this?” As a result, Zechariah is made unable to speak until the day that the angel’s message is fulfilled.
Last year, every day as I walked across campus to Mass, I passed a man on his bicycle. More accurately, the man passed me, several times, as he furiously pedaled around the campus buildings. He was a stocky man with a large metal box, which blasted music throughout the streets of New Haven, strapped around his back. It wasn’t just any music: it was the most fitting music for this tough guy on his bicycle in the city of New Haven: classical music. After long days of work and study, it was an incredible gift to laugh at the weirdness of this daily encounter as I walked to Mass.