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The Angel Gabriel Appearing to Zachary and
Announcing the Birth of John the Baptist

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Our present meditation is on: The Angel Gabriel Appearing to Zachary and Announcing the Birth of John the Baptist

As we have seen, briefly and only very sketchily, the angels are so prominent in the Old Testament we can almost say the Old Testament is the bible of the angels. One ancient prophet after another was guided and directed by the angels of God. Behind this phenomenal multitude of angels in the old Testament was the preparation of the coming Messiah.

Once we enter the New Testament, we can almost say that angels are an essential part of the fulfillment of the Messianic prophecies of the Old Law. After all, it was a fallen angel who first tempted our first parents to sin. We should therefore expect the good angels to bring comfort and consolation to the human race expecting its Redeemer.

Our meditations from now on will concentrate on the role of the angels in foretelling the coming of the redeemer: the role of the angels in foretelling the conception of the son of God becoming man, the role of the angels when Christ was born in Bethlehem, the role of the angels during Christ’s infancy. Then silence for thirty years, and no sooner does Christ began his public ministry, then He is tempted by the evil spirits and is consoled by the good angels.

During our Lord’s public ministry of teaching the gospel, angels fit in from beginning to end. During our Lord’s passion, angels were there. At his resurrection, the angels were there. At his resurrection and ascension into heaven, the angels were there. At great length, in chapter after Chapter in the book of the Apocalypse, the foretelling of the role of the angels in the church established by Christ. With that as a background, we will focus on the one event by which we shall both reflectively pray and prayerfully reflect.

Significantly it was St. Luke, the Apostle who brought news of the angels in the annunciation of our lady. It was St. Luke who is often called the evangelist of the angels.

As we have been doing before, my plan for this meditation is to go carefully verse after verse, to what we were told by the evangelist, that the angel Gabriel told Zachary. And remember it was Raphael’s speech to Tobias that is now being duplicated and fulfilled in now the angel Gabriel speaking to Zachary.

St. Luke first identifies the priest Zachary as doing his priestly work of offering sacrifice in the temple. A married man, childless. His wife’s name was Elizabeth. As Zachary was in the temple about to offer sacrifice as only the chosen priests were allowed to offer to God. An angel appeared to him, we are told, standing at the right side of the altar. Shall we say, what a wise choice. Over the centuries the Church has told that at every sacrifice of the Mass angels are there. At first the angel said nothing, but seeing the angel, Zachary was terrified. Note the familiar pattern. When angels appeared, people were frightened, only because they feared what the angels would tell them. Zachary was consistent of the pattern in the bible, especially in the Old Testament.

Zachary’s fear was obvious. So the angel spoke. The archangel Gabriel tells him:

Do not be afraid Zachary for your petition been heard. You wife Elizabeth shall bear a son, and you shall call his name John. You shall have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth . For he shall be great before the Lord and shall drink no wine or strong drink. He shall be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb. He shall bring back to God many of the children of Israel. He shall himself go before the Lord in the desert, and, in the power of Elijah, turn the house of father’s to their children and the unbelieving to the wisdom of the just to prepare for the Lord a perfect people.

This is part one of what Gabriel told Zachary, and as in the case of Tobias, so now Zachary, except Tobias believed, Zachary doubted.

He stirred up courage to talk back to the angel. “Just as minute he told Gabriel, are you telling me an old man, that my wife who has been barren over the years, that she, an aged woman, is going to conceive a child? Come now you do not expect me to believe this do you?”

The angel then said to him: “I am Gabriel who stands in the presence of God, I have been sent to speak to you to bring you this good news. Behold you shall be dumb and be unable to speak until the day when these things shall come to pass because you have not believed my words. It will not be fulfilled until the time has come.” So much for the Biblical narrative that I repeat the evangelist of angels, St. Luke, tells us.

If there is one thing we should know about God’s revealed truth in the Sacred Scripture, they tells us not only what happened in the past, the Scriptures are speaking to us. Gabriel’s message to Zachary is being spoken to all of us. We have much to learn.

As in the case of Raphael, so here, in the speech given by Gabriel. Though the angel was speaking to one man, his words have lasting value until the end of time. How we need to apply what we read in sacred scripture to ourselves.

We begin with the implications of our own lives. Again, the angel told Zachary not to be afraid for “your petition had been granted.” What is the angel telling Zachary? Elizabeth and Zachary had been praying for years that God might bless them with an offspring. There prayers were finally being heard. Our deepest fear arises from our doubt in God’s providence. I repeat, our deepest fears are caused by our doubts in God’s providence. By divine providence we mean that God is constantly, every moment, providing for our needs. Of what are we afraid? We might say we are afraid for ourselves. We know ourselves too well, but how we need to conquer our fears and to trust in the providing love of God. Our prayers, lets hear it, our prayers are always heard. God always hears, God knows best when and how to answer our prayers. There is no such thing as an unanswered prayer.

We continue. The angel promises Zachary a miracle. God does work miracles. We should expect miracles. Miracles give credibility to our faith. And let me be clear, a life of the total fidelity in Jesus Christ in every state of life whether married, single, religious, those separated from their spouses, priests, religious, bishops. I mean every word of the next sentence. To remain truly faithful to Jesus Christ He will give us light for the mind and strength for the will.

The angel is very specific. He tells Zachary that his wife will bear a son and he will call him “John” which means gift of God. The angels receive communication from God and direct what God tells them to tell us in very specific terms. This is part of the spirituality which I was reared.

How we need to distinguish between angelic inspirations and demonic instigations. John the Baptist, the angel told Zachary, will be great before the Lord. Oh how the word ‘greatness’ is not just misunderstood, but deceptively used in the world today. God wants us, in our own measure, to be great. True greatness consists in being chosen by God and being blessed with His Grace. To be great is to have God’s grace. Everyone else in not only not great, but unimportant, insignificant, our grace depends on the grace we have received from God.

The angel told Zachary that John would be sanctified. And he would be, what shall we say, mortified. There is a close relationship between mortification and sanctification. John, the angels predicts, will drink no wine or strong drink. How we, in our affluent society, need to learn the need for living mortified lives. I never tire of telling people that most of the human race goes to bed hungry every night. In Calcutta, I saw tens of thousands sleeping in the street, sleeping in the sidewalk, a whole vacant field covered with human bodies, lasting for the night. How we Americans better hear these words. We shall be sanctified in the measure we are mortified.

The angel goes on. John, Zachary is told would be holy already in his mother’s womb. We know exactly when and how this happened. Our Lady visited Elizabeth and the moment Mary’s words sounded in Elizabeth’s ears, as she told our Lady, the child stirred in his womb with joy. Why joy? He stirred with joy because he was sanctified with the grace of God.

Angels are messengers of God but they are primarily messengers of God’s grace. They are channels of God’s grace. In the Church’s tradition, we are told, God exercise His providence, always God is behind what He does in our favor. But in His ordinary providence, He exercise His care for us through the angels and they are channels of His grace.

Gabriel continues. He informs Zachary, John, already sanctified in his mother’s womb, once he grows up, he will convert many unbelieving and sinful Jews there in Palestine.

The angels are sent by God to bring back sinners and to convert stubborn unbelievers. But we must listen to the message. If the angels are messengers to us, we must have open ears. And unlike Zachary, we must believe. And believing, we must communicate to others. John, is foretold as the forerunner of Jesus Christ.

People must first be converted from sin and then their minds will be opened to the revealed word of God. And that, the angel tells Zachary, will be the vocation of his son John. He will convert the sinners and bring them back from their evil ways. And then, in the measure they have given up their sinful lives, in that measure will their hearts be open to hear and listen to the word of God.

What a profound and frightening lesson to us. Our minds will only be as open to God’s words as our hearts are sinless. Oh how academically educated people can be, but if their hearts are estranged from God by sin, then their minds are blind, and their minds become agents of the evil spirit. That, the angel Gabriel tells Zachary, would be the principal mission of John, to be a forerunner in telling the Jews of Palestine, “You hypocrites, you brood of vipers, you sinners, be converted from your evil ways.” And as the next generation grew, those who had indeed been converted from sin, they and only they, had their minds open to the teachings of Jesus Christ.

Zachary heard with his ears, but he did not believe. In fact, he objected. How shall I know this? How stupid of Zachary, here is an angel foretelling that his wife would conceived. She, aged and barren. Why doubt the angel’s word. After all, either Elizabeth would conceive or not. Once she conceived, then the angel’s words would be fulfilled. The lesson for us, hear it, in the category of the Church’s law: A heretic is one who denies what God has revealed, such as Christ’s divinity, or the Real Presence or the existence of heaven or hell. A heretic is also one who doubts what God has revealed.

The world in which we are living, what a safe statement, is a world of massive doubt. And the result is a world in profound misery. Only the humble acceptance of God’s word, only faith brings peace to the mind and joy to the heart.

It is pride, and behind doubt and denial is always pride. In our lives, the angels our own guardian spirits, the angels are always communicating God’s words to us. The secret is to believe what we are being told and you don’t have to have a mystical experience. For those sincerely seeking to do God’s will, they must trust that the idea in their minds, the impulses in their wills that bring them peace are from God. Trust God. God is the God peace. And the Son of God become man is the Prince of Peace. Only believers are at peace. Unbelievers are always troubled. Troubled within and trouble everything they touch.

As a result, Zachary was punished. He was punished by being deprived of his power of speech. What a lesson we should learn, if only the doubter, if only the dissenters, if only the heretics, the unbelievers were rendered speechless. Only those should speak and heard by others who believe. Zachary doubted and was punished by not being able to communicate to others. Only certitude should speak. Doubt should be silenced.

Gabriel tells Zachary that he was sent by God to bring Good News. And that good news is the Gospel. Faith tells us that the Gospel is the conversion of sinners, the restoration of grace and the reassurance of God’s friendship. Ah how grateful we should be for the good news. First foretold to Zachary by the angel Gabriel, and announced on Christmas morning to the shepherds. The Good News that the merciful has restored us to His friendship. We trust we are in God’s friendship. How we need to keep telling ourselves that nothing else in the world has any value,. Everything else is meaningless except to be in the friendship of God. Everything in our lives has only as much value as it brings us the grace of God, preserves us in the grace of God, increase in us in the grace of God, enables us, after receiving this grace, to share it with others. That is the good news foretold by Gabriel and fulfilled by Jesus Christ.

Mary, mother of our Redeemer, the same archangel Gabriel whose words were doubted by Zachary, you Mary believed. Obtain for us something of your own deep faith of God’s speaking to us, and we firmly believe through his angels whom he sends in our lives Obtain for us, Queen the angels, some of the deep joy of heart that comes from sharing in the mission of St. John the Baptist of bringing great joy to those who have strayed from God. That is, the heart of your son.

Dallas Carmelites, Conference #6, Monday 2/26/96, 9:30 AM

Copyright © 1996 Inter Mirifica

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