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Question by X:

(X stands for the name of the person who put the question. Unfortunately, the name has been “lost in transmission”! Can the person identify himself or herself to me? Thanks!)

My Lord, what is the difference between Zechariah’s response and the Virgin Mary’s response to the Angel Gabriel? If their responses are the same, why was Zechariah punished but the Virgin Mary was not punished?

Answer by Bishop Joseph Osei-Bonsu:

We should note that the birth of Jesus is paralleled by the birth of John the Baptist. John was born about six months before Jesus. His mother, Elizabeth, is described in Luke 1:36 as a “relative” or “kinswoman” (Greek: suggenes) of Mary, making John and Jesus also relatives. When the two stories are put side by side, as Luke does in the first two chapters of his gospel, some remarkable similarities emerge. For example:
• Both begin with the angel Gabriel announcing what God intends to do;
• Both have to do with children who are to play key roles in God’s plan of salvation;
• And both involve an unlikely set of parents – Zechariah and Elizabeth were old and well beyond the age of child-bearing; Joseph was engaged to Mary; they were not even married yet.

Reading these two accounts, it is clear that Luke wants us to know that these are no ordinary birth announcements; they are the preface to God’s plan to redeem the world from its fallen state and reconcile us to himself. We should pay close attention to how Zechariah and Mary responded. We will start with Zechariah:

“In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth” (Luke 1:5).

Luke goes on to assure us that not only were both Zechariah and Elizabeth from priestly families, they were righteous and blameless in God’s sight. Their only problem was that they did not have any children. It was assumed Elizabeth was barren.
When Zechariah went to the Temple to perform his priestly duties, he was assigned the task of offering incense in the sanctuary, and it was there in the holy of holies that he came face to face with the angel Gabriel. Naturally, he was startled. He did not know what to say. However, we are told:
“But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Lk 1:13-17).

Zechariah was described as a righteous priest, who was “walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord”. So one would think that he would be the model of faith since he was the priest who was “righteous before God”; however, it turns out he was the example of disbelief! Zechariah’s situation was similar to Abraham and Sarah’s situation with regard to the conception of Isaac. Zechariah would have been well acquainted with the story, considering he was a priest and probably very familiar with the Torah. He would have known that God is more than powerful enough to have a child born to those who are old. Yet, in his heart at that moment he did not believe it.

In view of the fact that Zechariah was not only a priest, but a member of the royal order of Abijah, and given the fact that he was righteous and blameless in God’s sight – in other words, that he did not have any reason to be afraid – we might have expected him to shout, “Hallelujah!” or “Thank you, Lord”. Instead, he questioned Gabriel’s word. The angel had said, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John”. But Zechariah said, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years” (Luke 1:18). In other words, “Why should I believe you?” He was asking for proof, and not taking the angel at his word. To his question the angel Gabriel said,

“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, unable to speak, until the day these things occur” (Luke 1:19-21).

Zechariah’s objection is answered with his loss of speech. Perhaps the harshness of this sign is due to the fact that he asked for proof and not simply for information, as Mary did (1:34), as we shall see. When Zechariah came out of the sanctuary and the other priests asked him what took him so long, he could not say a word. All he could do was grunt and point and make unintelligible sounds. Being priests, they figured he must have had some sort of vision, and they sent him home.

By contrast, there is the story of Mary. According to Luke,

“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary” (Luke 1:26-27).

We do not know this for a fact, but most scholars believe that Mary was no more than a teenager at the time, possibly as young as fourteen years old. We like to believe that she grew up in a pious home – some even believe that, like Elizabeth and Zechariah, she descended from priestly families – but there is no real proof of that. All we can be sure of is that she was a young woman with little, or no status or formal education.

Yet, the angel Gabriel appeared out of nowhere and called her name. He said, “Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women!” (Luke 1:28). Unlike Zechariah, Mary said nothing. Luke says, “But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be” (Luke 1:29). The angel Gabriel went on to tell her that God had chosen her to conceive a child and bear a son, who would be called the Son of the Most High God, and who would inherit the throne of David and reign over the house of Jacob forever (Luke 1:30-33).
Now, it is true Mary asked Gabriel a question. She asked, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34). Mary’s question was different. She accepted the fact that it was going to happen but wanted to know how it was going to happen since she was a virgin. She believed but just wanted clarification of how it was going to take place. The angel explained:
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God” (Luke 1:35).

Given Mary’s tender young age and the fact that she was a woman who has been approached by a man completely by surprise, we might expect her to call for help or run for her life. But no. According to Luke, after Gabriel told her what God had in mind, she bowed her head in submission and said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Mary is unwavering in faith from the beginning, offering her “fiat” on behalf of all mankind.
Mary believed what was far harder without a sign. Abraham, though older (and doubtless Sarah, too), when the same promise was made to him, did not stagger at the promise of God through unbelief, but was strong in faith, giving glory to God. It was in this that Zechariah failed. He did not believe and demanded a miraculous sign and the angel gave him one by striking him dumb. Unlike Zechariah, Mary is not charged with unbelief by Gabriel. Instead, she has belief and faith that God will accomplish what he has proclaimed through Gabriel. This is shown by her humble, submissive response in verse 38. However, if that was not clear enough or was not as an explicit proclamation of faith one would have expected, we get a clearer picture in verse 45: “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord”. Elizabeth is saying this to Mary about Mary.

For further explanations or enquiries, you may contact the author, Most Rev. Joseph Osei-Bonsu, Catholic Bishop of Konongo-Mampong, on this number: 0244488904, or on WhatsApp (with the same number).


Most Rev Joseph Osei-Bonsu

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