Hopefully you know the backstory to today’s gospel – it comes from Luke 1:5-25. Here are the highlights: Zechariah, a Levite called to priestly duty in the Temple in Jerusalem, has his own “Annunciation” while offering sacrifice in the Holy of Holies. He is told that he and his wife Elizabeth, in their old age, are to become parents – as it turns out, parents of the Herald of the Messiah, John the Baptist. Zechariah doubts the message of the angel Gabriel.
But now you will be speechless and unable to talk until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled at their proper time (Luke 1:20)
And now we move to the scene eight days after the birth of the child, in the midst of the Jewish celebration to name the child… and a kind of comedy of errors.
Friends and neighbors come and assume the child will be given the name of his father. The celebrant likely announced the child’s name will be “Zechariah.” One wonders if any had asked. Zechariah could not talk and apparently no one thought to ask Elizabeth. “No,” his mother interjects. “He is to be named John.” There is confused silence all around. I can imagine the dialogue: “Did you father bear this name?” “No.” “A brother?” “No.” “What about an uncle or grandfather?” “No.” “Well, has anyone in your family ever borne the name of John?” “No.”
Dazed and confused, they consult with Zechariah. And Zechariah motions for a writing tablet and scrawls out the words, “His name is John.” Not “he should be named” or “he will be called,” but rather, simply and definitively, “His name is John.” It’s a settled matter. It was settled, after all, by the angel Gabriel nine months earlier. And Zechariah, it would appear, has learned his lesson.
Their confusion, I think, is understandable. When God gets involved in our lives things often take turns we hadn’t anticipated. And though perhaps not all that funny in the moment, our halting, often stumbling attempts to navigate the new terrain God’s promise has laid before us will, at a distance, appear even – and maybe especially – to us as humorous. Zechariah, once he regained his voice, no doubt looked back at his time on silence, shook his head, and chuckled to himself and his bride, “And to think I asked Gabriel how all this could happen.”
There is an ancient Christian hymn often sung as part of evening prayer called the Phos Hilaron, a transliteration of the Greek often rendered as “gladdening light” or “joyous light.” But the word we translate as “gladdening” or “joyous” is also the root of our word “hilarious.” So also in the Latin version, Lumen Hilare.) Which means that we might sing this song of praise to the “hilarious light of glory.”
Why did the early Christians choose such a peculiar song with which to end their days? Because they recognized, I think, that along with the wonder and excitement that comes to those who witness God’s activity in their lives always comes a bit of confusion, as things work out in ways we’d never expected, and eventually laughter, the hilarious laughter of those who have seen God choose an old woman to bear the herald of the Messiah, a young virgin to give birth to the Son of God, and an executed criminal born in a stable to redeem the world. Hilarious, indeed.
Joyous light of glory
of the immortal Father,
Heavenly, holy, blessed Jesus Christ,
We have come to the setting of the Sun
And we look to the evening light.
We sing to God, the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit.
You are worthy of being praised with pure voices forever.
O Son of God, O Giver of Light,
The universe proclaims your glory.