As we’re in the Advent season, I knew the story of Zechariah’s muteness would be part of the liturgy at some point. The story is told in Luke 1, and Zechariah’s silence held special significance for me this year, because I, too, lost my voice. After getting a respiratory infection, I could feel my throat beginning to close up. A few days later, my voice was entirely gone. I could not even whisper. For three days, I could not utter a sound. This made not only my professional life a tad difficult (I am a voice teacher), but basically EVERYTHING difficult. While my family thoroughly enjoyed teasing me for not being able to nag them, I was despondent. (Those of you who know me personally know that I am a bit of a talker. Okay, I talk a lot.)
As my silence persisted, I began to notice things—things I’m sure Zechariah noticed, too. Here’s what I learned.
1) When you can’t talk, for some unknown reason, people whisper to you. Because you can barely speak, they answer you quietly, and speak slowly to you. They pat your arm, and make tsk, tsk sounds. This is simultaneously annoying and endearing.
2) When you can’t talk, you hear more, because you don’t have a choice. I realized I was unable to jump in and give an opinion or throw in a sarcastic retort in conversations. Instead, I listened to what those around me were saying—really listened, without preparing what my next witty comment might be…because I couldn’t comment anyway. It was actually very freeing, as I didn’t feel I had to entertain everyone around me. (This desire to entertain is self-induced.)
3) When you can’t talk, you hear more, because you are listening more. No, hearing and listening are not the same thing. Hearing involves your ears, but listening involves your heart and mind. I especially was aware of this during Thanksgiving. While I had my voice somewhat back by then, it still wasn’t strong and I couldn’t talk without coughing. I knew I needed to remain quiet and to not engage with everyone as I usually do. It was very enjoyable to sit in a room full of chattering people and to simply listen to them and laugh with them. I realized I miss a lot of this by trying to contribute—or even monopolize—the conversation.
4) When you can’t talk, you hear God more. I often pray out loud, as I find my mind wanders when I pray silently. I have animated conversations with God, which probably can sound a bit disturbing to other normal people who don’t know who I’m talking to. I often forget, however, that conversations are about communication, which is a two-way endeavor. Every day, I pray that God will open my ears, open my heart, and close my mouth. Getting laryngitis is a great way of closing my mouth, as the choice is no longer mine. I can then allow God to get a word in edge-wise.
It is 4) above that I think created the story of Zechariah. Some might view his story as yet another “God smiting a poor unsuspecting person.” After all, who wouldn’t pause and ask the angel Gabriel, “My wife is having a baby? We’re going to be parents? Do you know how old we are?” Yet, retribution for questioning God is not entirely the crux of this story. I do not believe God was taking away Zechariah’s speech; I think God was giving Zechariah the gift of listening.
Because he couldn’t speak, Zechariah had nine months to receive well-meaning advice on child-rearing from his family, friends, and neighbors. He had nine months to listen to his wife’s complaints about her swollen feet and aching back, and to then massage those tender areas of her body. He had nine months to ponder what this special baby, to be named John, would truly mean in this world. He had nine months to foster a hope that the Messiah just might be coming in the near future.
Perhaps some would be angry and bitter after being struck dumb for nine months. Not Zechariah–for when his voice was finally freed, all of his pent up emotions were finally released into a powerful narrative ballad. This ballad, often referred to as a “song,” concludes with these beautiful phrases:
Luke 1: NRSV
78 By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon[h] us, 79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Advent is here, B-Flat Christian. Listen, truly listen, to all those who surround you, and cultivate your own seed of hope…maybe even burst forth in a song of joy. Use your words to lift up, to soothe, to strengthen those around you. Believe that hope is coming.