I love a story within a story. You know, a narrative that has a smaller but crucial story woven inside the bigger one. The Bigger narrative wouldn’t be as rich or meaningful without it.
Take Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer for example. You know the story within the story right? Think on it a second. What is it? That’s right…the Island of Misfit Toys! It’s a mysterious place filled with not quite right toys that children didn’t want. Santa learns about their plight and rescues them in the midst of the bigger story of Rudolf saving Christmas with his red nose.
There was another story within a story.
A man named Zacharias and his wife Elizabeth had a life altering event unfold right inside the Christmas story. Their tale enriches Jesus birth story, it gives it richer meaning and significance.
They had been around for a long time and were getting up in years but were still a vital part of community. Zacharias was a priest. Everyone knew them. Everyone knew they were getting older. Everyone knew they did not have any children.
In that time children were e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g. A symbol of significance and blessing. An inheritance from God. You needed them for survival. You needed them in your old age. You needed them for your self-esteem.
Time was moving fast, Zacharias and Elizabeth were feeling it. There was a void. This was not how it was supposed to go.
Everywhere Zacharias looked he saw fathers with their children. He watched as they taught their kids the responsibilities of daily life. It didn’t matter what he did, he was surrounded by scenes of what he was supposed to have done in his younger years. At this point, grandchildren should be running around him. All he could see were families. Everywhere. It was like he was on his life stage but his storyline didn’t fit the scenery. Zacharias faithfully fulfilled his role as priest in the temple. He was busy doing his work but it was getting harder and harder to do.
Elizabeth was also a woman known in her community. Each day she was confronted by women with round bellies; children scurrying around the feet of their busy mothers. Life was bustling everywhere but inside her. Haunted by everyday life. She was making herself crazy with all her suspicions that others were talking behind her back. Each day she’d put on a bright face but inside she felt dark with the shame of not being able to bear a child. Maybe she had committed some great crime for which she didn’t know and couldn’t amend? Maybe that’s why this has happened? At least that is how she felt.
Do you look around your life stage right now and feel your storyline doesn’t fit the scenery? Everything looks Christmasy but inside you don’t feel it?
One night Elizabeth patiently waited for Zacharias to come home as she always did. But he was late. Very late.
While at work in the temple he had a visitation. Not from a person but an angel. (Angels always come at Christmastime.) This angel told him that he would have a child. A miracle.
Zacharias was no dummy. He knew his wife was barren and even if she could have children she was well past her prime and so was he. (Read the whole story here.) He didn’t mean to doubt the angel but he needed a guarantee. They had been through too much. Elizabeth had been through too much, he couldn’t watch her suffer all over again. They had a nice thing going in life finally. They knew their place. They had made their peace with their situation. He wasn’t going to upset things now and he needed this angel to guarantee it would work out like he was suggesting.
Angels don’t make deals.
From that moment on Zacharias was dealt an unusual blow. He was silenced. Unable to speak. He had to use hand gestures to explain what had happened. A big game of charades.
Now heres the story within the story:
Elizabeth and Mary, Jesus mother, were related. Before Jesus was this other baby. His name was to be John. His story also started as miracle. His parents also an unlikely duo; two old people surrounded by all the things that they longed for but could never have. Biology wouldn’t allow it. The backdrop of the Jesus story is the foreground of this story. A shocking conception before the really shocking Conception. A miracle that would set the stage of the Miracle. What the natural order of things couldn’t produce the supernatural is amused by.
I think it’s amusing that Zacharias is silenced. At first it seems cruel. The most amazing thing that has ever happened to him and he can’t even talk about it? Come on! But then when I thought about it more I realized that perhaps it was a gift.
Silence can be a gift if we let it.
This old couple lived in a world where they were plagued by all that eluded them. They were diligent and sincere. But everywhere around them were triggers. The expectation that they should have had children was a weight around them. The shame Elizabeth felt; that she must bear children in order to be worthy, a dagger in her heart each day. The constant reminders around them of their broken bodies and loss were like a nagging ringing in their ears. It was no one’s fault. This was just how it was.
This angel had come to tell them their world would turn upside down. Keep on praying and living, it will happen because God said it would happen. Zacharias couldn’t take the angel at his word. It was too difficult. So a quiet hushed his voice.
He couldn’t say one thing.
Sometimes it’s best to not say a thing.
Sometimes it’s just what we need.
Look around. Do you feel as cheery as all the Christmas decorations, music and sentiments? It’s great if you do. But what I’m getting at is does this time present triggers for you? Do you feel an expectation that you just can’t meet? Are you supposed to make everyone feel magical and warm? Are you supposed to find the exact right gift, prepare the perfect meal or cookie, decorate the house in the most inviting way….and inside…it’s not there?
This time of year can be brutal.
Striving for it to feel and be wonderful, we lose wonder and we feel nothing. Like Zacharias demanding a guarantee from the angel, we do the same. We demand from ourself and others that each holiday delivers the good “feels” as we call them in my house. You know, the lights, decorations, traditions, foods, friends…it all has to make us feel Christmasy and if it’s not working, well we must be doing something wrong. Shame.
So inwardly we feel frustrated, crabby or filled with angst. Outwardly we write the most amazing Christmas cards and bake the same old cookies and hang the stockings by the fire place hoping or at least pretending that it gives us the “feels” we so desperately want to feel.
But somewhere on the stage of life we need to be hushed.
Quiet makes room for the Spirit of God to still the soul. When we stop arguing with angels we can hear better. Hearing is a gateway to peace.
Zacharias was quieted to find peace.
Peace with himself and his aging body. Peace with his suffering wife and her aging body. Peace with his void. Peace with the expectation and demands that he and society had levied against both of them, which they could do nothing about. Peace with feeling helpless. Peace that God had heard their prayers all along. Peace with what the angel said. Peace with the timing of God and how different it was from his.
When the weight of unfulfilled expectation was more than he could take an angel came and silenced him; silence was the relief from the pressure.
Silence is holy.
Have your buttons been pressed yet this Christmas season?
Do you feel the anxiety of everyone else expectations? Do you feel you are supposed to be magical and you are fresh out of pixy dust? Are you afraid of change, that the family won’t be together like they always are, that maybe someone is missing this year, that it can’t be the way you’ve always had it? Are you afraid you don’t have enough money or energy to make things special? Is your body, mind or heart broken or sick? Is your family broken or sick?
Is it more than you can take?
Let the angels quiet you this year.
The Holy is in the silence.
Impose intentional quiet.
Let silence bring you peace. God does NOT expect you to make Christmas magical. Your unfulfilled expectations have NOT gone unnoticed by God. Your prayers are heard.
The quiet teaches us that God is God and we are not. That His timeline and purpose is often far removed from what we are thinking, silence enables us to hear clearer. When we don’t have to waste verbal energy defending, coercing, explaining and conjuring ourselves, others and God, there is room for the peace of God. The miracle before the Miracle, the quiet in the silence.
Silence is an act of trust. Trusting allows our storyline to meet up with the scenery.
Impose intentional quiet. Silence was the gift Zacharias received and it can be ours too.
Before God sent His son, He sent silence.