This is a loud season, full of good busy and hectic hustle, both joy and stress. We long for a simple and meaningful Christmas, we want to be present during this Advent season. Often, our fear gets in the way.

We want to gather, but the threat of Covid still kind of lurks in the background even as we plan celebrations. Everything is more expensive and we’re kind of thinking–maybe we should dial it back a notch. Make Christmas a little simpler. But even as we strive for simplicity, we see others for whom “simplicity” is not a choice but their only option.

I see you, harried one. Drowning in to-do lists and projects, work and kids and social obligations. I see you, wanting to do something about the suffering or struggles of others, yet uncertain of how to help, and not sure how you’d find the time to do any more anyway. Feeling overwhelmed, longing for rest.

The counterintuitive truth: sometimes our most meaningful action is preceded by quiet reflection. Contemplation, pondering things in our heart, can help us to not just act, but to set our intentions in the most meaningful and helpful way.

You know that the days between now and Christmas will be full. What would happen if you carve out time to be quiet and listen to God, making space for God to speak to you and guide you through this hectic season? Could you give yourself the gift of a few quiet moments.

In that spirit, here’s an Advent post that I wrote a few years ago about one of my favorite characters in the Christmas story, Zechariah. It’s an invitation to consider the power of quiet–even quiet we may not choose.

Zechariah’s Transformative Silence

My kids hustle out the door into the barely light morning at 6:45. I pour another cup of coffee, plug in the tree lights and sit in the dim early morning, resting in the quiet. An introvert at heart, I love silence. My to-do list beckons, but I take a few minutes to speak quietly to God, and to listen.

Silence is gift, and yet, one we don’t often recognize. In Luke’s Christmas story, the old priest Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were unable to have children. Their prayers for a family seemed to fall on deaf ears. Where was God? But then, a miraculous promise. The angel Gabriel tells Zechariah that his prayers will finally be answered. Despite their advanced years, he’s going to be a dad! His wife will bear a son! And not just any son, but one who will fulfill prophesy and prepare the way for the coming Messiah. Instead of joy, gratitude or even wonder, Zechariah responds with fear and doubt. He’s terrified and overwhelmed when he sees the angel Gabriel standing next to the altar, and he spirals down from there when he learns he’s going to be a parent for the first time, when he was old enough to be a grandpa.

The text says:

“Zechariah said to the angel, ‘How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.’ The angel replied, ‘I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute (siōpaō) , unable to speak, until the day these things occur.’” (Luke 1:18-20, NRSV)

Because of his unbelief, God gives Zechariah a very long time-out. And like the time-outs I sometimes give my kids, it’s not just punitive, but offers a chance to think, to reflect. There are hints in the text that Zechariah was not only mute but deaf as well. The Greek word used in this passage, siōpaō , contains an element of chastisement or rebuke. It’s often used in places where people are silent because of embarrassment or consternation. It is also used to describe Jesus’ lack of response to the questioning of the high priest after his arrest. (See Matthew 26 and Mark 14).

It is used metaphorically to describe a calm, quiet sea, but only after it has been rebuked. In Mark 4, we read that Jesus, who had been sleeping during a boat ride, awakens and calms a frightful storm with a word. He tells the wind and water: “Peace (siōpaō) be still (phimoō).“ (This second word, phimoo, means to muzzle or make speechless). The New Living Translation renders Jesus’ words to the water “Quiet down!”

What affect did Zechariah’s silence have on his soul? What happened to his faith, his attitude, his heart, when he had to “quiet down” for almost a year? For more than nine months, he sat at home. After she conceived, his wife Elizabeth was “in seclusion” according to the text. Zechariah may have felt lonely, confused.

Maybe you’re in a similar spot. Doubting that God’s promises are for you. Struggling to hang on to your faith in the face of unanswered prayers.

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Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov [Public domain] from Wikimedia commons

From fear to joy

What did he think about? Although he was outwardly silent, I imagine that Zechariah had many long conversations with God in those months. And gradually, something shifted within him. When he finally speaks after his son is born, what pours forth? The text says: “Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God” (Luke 1:64). He goes on to utter a spontaneous hymn of praise and prophesy, dictated by the Holy Spirit. (see Luke 1:67-79)

Joy replaced his fear and doubt. I wonder if the gift of silence might have similar effect in our souls?

I love what Marina McCoy writes about Zechariah: “While at first glance, Gabriel’s words can seem like a punishment, we might also read them as an invitation….Sometimes our words, like Zechariah’s, manifest our own limits. Silence makes room for the fullness of God’s dynamic and healing power.” (Read her short but powerful post in its entirety here.)

In our culture, the Christmas season is often noisy. We may not see the value in times of silence or quiet. And yet, in the Christmas story is tucked a treasure of truth: silence transforms us.

Next Steps:

Ask, what is God inviting me into? Carve out 15 to 30 minutes somewhere in the next day or two. Put down your phone (even turn it off!) and simply be quiet. Breathe, ask God to speak. What fears do you need transformed into joy? Let your whirling mind rest.