[The excerpt below is from a piece written by Dr. Jeffrey Mirus. It’s the kind of careful reading of a scriptural text I find reassuring, given what one too often hears in homilies. This excerpt is also helpful as an aid to doing lectio divina. This kind of analytical reading of a text is not, strictly speaking, lectio divina. It is, though, the kind of informed reading that provides a beneficial background one brings to the practice of lectio divina. As the title of Dom Jean Leclercq’s masterpiece, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, reminds us, erudition is part of the monastic charism.
To shift gears from Scripture scholarship to art history, a quick search for images of St. Gabriel’s annunciations to both our Lady and to St. Zechariah unearthed no works that attempted a kind of diptych of the two events. Curious.]
This year I decided to reread the infancy narratives each day during the Octave of Christmas. I included for this purpose Mt 1:1–2:18; Lk 1:5–2:40; and (abnormally) Jn 1:1-18. … Surprisingly, by doing this I learned something more about the spiritual difference between Zechariah (father of John the Baptist) and Mary (mother of Jesus Christ)—and about why Zechariah was punished while Mary was encouraged.
It was part of my Catholic formation that, since both Zechariah and Mary questioned Gabriel’s message from God, Zechariah must have been struck dumb because his question implied doubt, while Mary’s did not. I suppose I am late to the party on this, but I had not realized—nor had anyone explained to me—that the difference in their attitudes was not merely presumed by readers but explicit in the text. …
Zechariah’s question to Gabriel was: “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years” (Lk 1:18). Gabriel’s reply is one of offended majesty: “I am Gabriel, who stand in the presence of God.” He fairly shouts that he was sent by God to tell him these wonderful things and yet Zechariah dared to question him! Thus the sign given to Zechariah is also a punishment; Zechariah will be mute until these things are, as they certainly will be, “fulfilled in their time.”
But Mary’s question to Gabriel was: “How can this be, since I have no husband?” This question does not bring a harsh response, but a truly remarkable explanation. Why?
The reason is actually presented clearly in the text. Mary did not doubt the veracity of Gabriel’s message, but Zechariah did. Zechariah asked, “How shall I know this?” In other words, “What sign will you give me to prove that this message is true?” Mary, on the other hand, asks “How can this be”, as if to say, “since I have no way of becoming pregnant?” An alternate reading is even more clear: “How will this be?” Mary is metaphorically rolling up her sleeves. I would paraphrase this way: “I’m in. Now how are we going to get this done?”
As it happens, Zechariah’s response is very common in the Old Testament, while Mary’s is a harbinger of the New—the response of a nature already restored by grace. Even the greatest Old Testament figures typically asked for and/or were given a sign. For Abraham, the sign that he will truly be the father of a great nation is that his wife will at last conceive a son in her old age. For Zechariah, the sign is that his power of speech is reduced, perhaps to reflect his reduced faith, though he was clearly a good man.
The most famous example of this need for a sign is the case of Gideon, recounted in the Book of Judges (6:36-40). You will recall that God promises to deliver Israel by Gideon’s hand, but Gideon asks for a sign. He lays out a fleece on the ground, saying: “If there is dew on the fleece alone, and it is dry on all the ground, then I shall know that thou wilt deliver Israel by my hand, as thou hast said.” But after the dew falls, when that proves to be the case, Gideon’s next response is to demand the opposite, just to make sure:
Let not thy anger burn against me, let me speak but this once; pray, let me make trial only this once with the fleece; pray, let it be dry only on the fleece, and on all the ground let there be dew.
Trust in God did not come so very easily to Gideon.