Executive Editor Rick Hamlin reminds us that, in the Christmas story, expectant fathers Zechariah and Joseph hear from heaven too.
Oct 26, 2016
During last year’s Christmas pageant at our church, I watched as the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her the good news, that she would give birth to a son named Jesus who would be called God’s Son.
But in the same performance of tinfoil-covered crowns and angels in cardboard wings, there was another scene starring the busy Gabriel, this time alerting the aged Zechariah that his good wife Elizabeth would soon give birth to a boy named John.
That’s right, I thought. The angels appeared to the dads too.
Maybe I was recalling my own anxieties when I was an expectant father. How I could’ve used angelic comfort that all would be well, and that God was present and that my offspring would grow up to do good things at a time when I couldn’t imagine how we’d afford a child let alone a baby carriage, a crib and a changing table (did we really need one of those?).
Not surprisingly, the angels in the Christmas story kept dads clued in.
Take Zechariah. His story appears right at the beginning of the Gospel of Luke. He was a good and holy man, a priest at the temple, blameless and righteous. For many years he’d been praying for a child but his wife, Elizabeth, hadn’t been able to conceive and by now she was well past her child-bearing years.
Imagine his surprise when Gabriel shows up at the temple to say that Zechariah and Elizabeth will have a son who will bring the Israelites back to the Lord.
“How can I be sure of this?” Zechariah asks, filled with doubt. “My wife and I are very old,” he says, sounding not unlike 100-year-old Abraham when told that 99-year-old wife, Sara, would conceive.
Unaccustomed to being challenged, Gabriel asserts himself. “I am Gabriel,” he proclaims. “I was sent to speak to you and to bring this good news to you. Know this: What I have spoken will come true.” Then he punishes Zechariah for his lack of faith by silencing him. Zechariah will be mute, “unable to speak until the day when these things happen,” as Gabriel puts it.
For her part Elizabeth keeps the good news to herself for months until her cousin Mary shows up, the two celebrating their great fortune together, the feisty baby John leaping in Elizabeth’s womb.
Indeed Zechariah can’t say anything until the baby is eight days old and ready to be circumcised. All the friends and relatives want to name the child Zechariah after his father. No, Elizabeth says, he is meant to be John.
They turn in bewilderment to Zechariah who asks for a tablet and writes the name down, John. It was foreseen. At once Zechariah’s voice comes back and he bursts into a song of praise.
“Bless the Lord God of Israel because he has come to help and has delivered his people...” he says, thrilled to be used by God. His child will grow up to be John the Baptist, who will in fact baptize his own cousin Jesus one day, no doubt long after his parents have passed on.
The other dad in the Christmas story is, of course, Joseph, and the angels are just as attentive to him. Like Zechariah, Joseph is described as a righteous man, although merely a carpenter, not a priest at the temple.
When Joseph learned his betrothed Mary was pregnant before they were even married, he didn’t want to embarrass her or humiliate her and decided to call off the engagement quietly, as the Bible puts it.
Enter the angel, appearing to Joseph in a dream to let him know what’s up. “Joseph son of David,” the angel says, “don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus...”
Joseph wakes up and, according to the Gospel of Matthew, does exactly what the angel says without equivocation. Joseph marries Mary and takes her to Bethlehem where Jesus is born. He acts with gentleness and humility, responding to his heavenly clues with alacrity.
The angel appears in two more dreams to Joseph, always ensuring the safety of his wife and child. First the angel warns Joseph that King Herod has become furiously jealous of this new king supposedly born in Bethlehem. The violent and quixotic Herod will soon send soldiers to kill all the male children in Bethlehem who are two years old or younger.
“Get up,” the angel tells Joseph. “Take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod will soon search for the child in order to kill him.”
Once again, Joseph acts almost immediately, taking Mary and the Baby Jesus under the cover of darkness to Egypt. The Bible doesn’t say how long they stayed there, but it is an angel who lets Joseph know that King Herod has died and it’s safe to return to Israel.
“Those who were trying to kill the child are dead,” the angel says. Traveling north, Joseph brings his wife and Jesus to the area of Galilee and the young family settles in Nazareth.
As everyone who has sat through a Christmas pageant or been in one knows, angels take a major role, not only when Gabriel comes to Mary, but more popularly when the heavenly host appears to the shepherds and delivers the good news, “Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.”
But as a dad, I delight in looking at these lesser-known incidents, not as often portrayed in auditoriums or on sanctuary steps. It’s nice to think that when tough decisions have to be made or danger lurks, a heavenly messenger is there. If I got such a message, I hope I’d act more like Joseph than Zechariah.
“Get up,” the angel says. Joseph did just that.
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