Zachariah was a priest. Married to Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin. They were childless until they, like Mary, had one of those – (pregnant pause)- visits from the angel Gabriel. Then, Elizabeth and Zachariah, at the ages of 60 or 70 or so, became the proud, however old, parents of John. John who would grow up and become known as John the Baptist.
When Mary felt Jesus kick from within, she sang a song. When Zachariah saw his son, he sang a song, too. (Which may be a lesson for new mothers: remember, while you’ve been feeling that little kicker somersaulting for months; daddy’s just now holding the child, feeling/experiencing him/her in extraordinarily intimate ways for the first time. Forgive dad his initial blubbering.) Anyway, here is Zach’s song (remember to put a tune behind it!).
76And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
77to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
78because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
79to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
St.Zachariah, as depicted on an Orthodox icon, a subject worth a whole blog’s worth of discussion some day. But here’s a preview: that is gold leaf behind St. Zach, and it has been hammered into position. Each stroke of the hammer was accompanied by a prayer, a specific prayer. Literally, sometimes prayers are the sounds of a hammer.
Note that Zachariah, as written about by Luke, is associating the story he’s become a part of to the ancient and well-known Hebrew story. Just as Mary sang of her being used to continue the covenant between Abraham and YHWH, Zachariah’s song establishes his son John as a continuation of the prophetic tradition in Israel- a tradition that has been silent, since the days of Malachi, for 600 years!
As all prophets do, John will be preparing the way, clearing the path, establishing a route for another who will follow- in this case, Jesus. And as all prophets also seem to do, John will die for having done a good job. John’s character will, about 1900 years after his birth, play a prominent role in the opera, “Salome,” by Richard Strauss, where he was represented, in a final shocking scene, as a severed head.
Zachariah, though, the real subject of this piece, did his job and did it well. He would have died a happy man, having had an offspring. Thus, he had fulfilled the long-proscribed roles of husband, father, and priest very well. We are, after all, talking about him even at this moment, some 1980 years after Salome danced with his son for real!
Zachariah may have been one of the minor players in the drama of Jesus’ birth, but his presence helped establish Jesus in the Jewish mainstream, past and present. What Jesus said, did, and lived his whole life was as a Jew. He learned about his faith, as did all all Jewish children, from his parents and the other adults in his world. Cousin Zach, a priest, would certainly have been one of those persons he learned much from, and Jesus would have spent much of his growing-up years with his six month older cousin John.
It takes a village..yes? And Jesus had one, made up of real people who cared for him as a child, son, and relative first, before they ever fully knew him as a Messiah. That “village love” would have been a huge part of his decision to accept the call on his life made by God. It had been there since before he was born, and he’d grown up surrounded by it. So it was natural that Jesus went first to a family member- John the Baptizer-when he came out of his Messiah closet.
He knew he would be accepted and safe in those first moments of his declaration. Zechariah, Elizabeth, John, Joseph, and Mary: what a village it was!