Thursday, December 28, 2006

mark the date

The specifics of the reunification ceremony between ROCOR and Moscow have been released. In less than five months, it will be official!

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

leave me hanging

We're back from Pittsburgh. It was good to see family, and the trip went largely without incident, but I can't say I'm entirely happy with my experience of the holiday. I knew, of course, that I wouldn't be attending an Orthodox service throughout. I also knew that I was planning to be lenient with fasting. We haven't discussed Orthodoxy with my aunt & uncle or grandfather, and we did not plan to do so on this visit. (They're very loosely Christian--at least, that would be their professed affiliation, but none of them attends church with any regularity or exhibits much personal devotion.) I knew it would be difficult to explain my fasting to them, and since we were there to observe the holiday, I figured I would just go along with whatever happened. If I had the opportunity, I would fast to one degree or another. So, for instance, Friday morning I ate dry toast for breakfast. Most other meals, we all ate together, and there was little opportunity to avoid meat or dairy, at least not without drawing attention to the fact. I tried to watch how much I ate, but that was about the extent of it. Since my grandfather was there only on Saturday, we ate our Christmas dinner then and exchanged gifts. Essentially, that was the holiday in our observance this year, so I considered it the formal end of my Nativity Fast.

It was disappointing that the holiday itself got lost in the shuffle. By that point, we were on our second day of leftovers. Ian opened his stocking stuffers in the morning. Otherwise, we just hung around and watched TV throughout the morning. In the afternoon, Julie and I caught a movie. Ian didn't get much of a nap and freaked out at bedtime. He was way too goofy and wouldn't cooperate when we told him to undress. I ended up forcing him into his pajamas, which then created a new battle of wills, as he wanted to undo everything and do it himself. Too late for that. Finally, Mommy left the room, which gave him something new to lament. He was still pretty torn up when I finally got him to quiet down and prayed over him. He went to sleep after that and seemed better in the morning. It was time to go home, though, and get things back to normal. ("Normal"--on top of her morning sickness, which has been running pretty much 24/7, Julie came down with a cold on Christmas that only got worse yesterday--I still don't know how she managed to catch it, since no one else in the house was sick.)

At least we did get to a Christmas Eve service of some type. My aunt, who at times has gone to church with more regularity, wanted to go somewhere for Christmas. Originally, she wanted to check out a big, new church that was just built around the corner from them, but when she sent us the URL for their Web site I discovered that they were charismatic. There's a section that explains stuff you'll see in the service--speaking in tongues, falling to the ground, etc. She didn't want to go there after we mentioned it, but she found another church not too far away. It's very much in the same tradition as Bethany, where we've attended since our second year in MD. The singing is led by a praise band, the preaching is topical, oriented toward the lifestyle of white-collar, white-bread Americans; they're big on visual aids, but utterly iconoclastic--this one didn't even have a cross on the wall. They had decorated the auditorium for Christmas--or at least for winter holidays. There was fake snow all over the place, a bunch of evergreen trees with lights, and a big snowman front-and-center-stage. Off in the corner, there was a tiny manger scene--a vestige of some distant, less aural tradition, for which I should be thankful. The singing was a mixture of popular praise songs and traditional Christmas carols.

The sermon was a fairly standard evangelistic message. (Any good, Evangelical Christmas Eve service should target the heathens who show up on this day and no other.) I don't want to sound too cynical here. I really do think, in general, that God uses Evangelical Christianity in important ways. More specifically, the service seems to have had a positive impact on my aunt, and when the invitation was given at the end, the pastor indicated that several people had raised their hands. (For those unfamiliar with the format, it's typical of much Evangelical preaching to end with an invitation where everyone is told to bow their heads and close their eyes, not just to show reverence, but for privacy. The preacher leads a "sinner's prayer" and asks those who prayed along for the first time to raise their hands. This is the kinder, gentler approach that has widely replaced the old "altar call," where those making first-time professions are supposed to come forward. Some churches do both--raising the hands first, then an optional altar call for those brave enough to come. It's common practice for the preacher to acknowledge the hands that are raised, which signals to the individual that they can put their hand back down and also registers for the rest of the group how much positive response there was.)

When I was in college, I used to work in evangelistic outreach--talking to people on the street and going door-to-door. The philosophy is that, while it may not be the ideal way to do evangelism, it may reach some people who otherwise would never hear the gospel. It's an accepted fact that few will respond and even fewer will make a genuine, lasting commitment. Measures are taken to follow up, but there's a lot of disappointment. There are some parallels with evangelistic preaching. The audience is presumably more disposed to listen (since they came in the first place), but there is still a strong tendency for people to respond in the emotion of the moment but never really show any lasting commitment. I say this not to downplay the possibility that some real life change began that night, but even many Evangelical churches accept that such momentary decisions might not be real. For this reason (and others), some churches almost never give a public invitation (even the "raise your hand" kind). They might extend the opportunity for people to talk with someone if they have questions about what they heard, but that's about it. Room is left for the individual to reflect and choose on their own whether they really want what's being offered.

So I do hope and pray that those who raised their hands were sincere and made a real decision about following Christ. More than that, I hope that they have people in their lives who can be a continuing influence on them. Salvation in any case is a process, and it would be a shame to see real desire die without the nurture of a faithful community. There may be a lot more to Christianity than Evangelicalism has to offer, but everyone has to start somewhere. It's a constant call to come further in and further up.

At any rate, we both felt like Christmas was lacking something this year and decided that we'll probably stay home next time. As for me, I'm looking forward to Theophany. I guess I'll just have to be old-fashioned and lump the two back in together :-)

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

St. Ignatius vs. Evangelicals

Today is the commemoration of Ignatius of Antioch, which provoked me to go back and read some of his letters. Ignatius was bishop of Antioch around the beginning of the second century. In fact, he was martyred so early in the century, that for all practical purposes he can be called a first-century Christian. He's one of several known as Apostolic Fathers--the generation of Church leaders immediately following the Apostles themselves. He was a disciple of John and barely outlived his master. Short of Scripture itself, this is about as close as we get to the beginnings of Christianity. I'm sure I must have read at least part of his letters sometime in college or seminary, but I wasn't particularly interested at the time. I'm noticing some interesting things in them now:
  • He clearly assumes a governing structure of one bishop in the church of each city over several presbyters. (The English word "priest," incidentally, is derived from Greek "presbyter," and apart from Protestant tradition translates the same. Protestants prefer the term "elder.")
  • He articulates a sacramental or salvific view of the eucharist (communion), calling it "the medicine of immortality," an "antidote to prevent us from dying," causing our eternal life.
  • He advises complete spiritual submission to the bishop and speaks of him as the representative of Christ (and the presbyters in the place of the apostles). For him, the bishop is the center and source of unity for the Church. Indeed, without the bishop and presbyters, there is no Church.
  • He hints at the salvific nature of the Church by indicating that not only heresy is to be avoided, but schisms in general, and that anyone who follows schismatics out of the Church is in danger for his soul.
  • He warns against heretics who (among other things) deny that the eucharist is the body and blood of Christ.
  • He invalidates communion or baptism that is not performed by the bishop or his agent.
And that's to say nothing of the intense devotion to the Virgin Mary that appears in the so-called "spurious epistles." (I make no judgment one way or the other about their authenticity.)

I find these points interesting, because they highlight the historical problem for Evangelicalism and Protestantism in general. These are elements with which Evangelicals I know would take issue, and in so doing they would have to say that a disciple of the Apostle John himself--not just any disciple, but one entrusted with oversight of the Church at Antioch--departed significantly from the true, biblical model of the Church and its ordinances. I don't think most Evangelicals quite realize the seriousness of the charges they must bring. It's easy enough to feel comfortable with some vague idea that over centuries of gradual deterioration and corruption the Church turned into Roman Catholicism and subsequently needed to be reformed in a big way. But the evidence of St. Ignatius's letters points to a Church situation so dramatically different from what many Evangelicals would expect, that they're faced with a difficult choice. Either admit that the Church rapidly plunged into serious error from the first generation after the Apostles, or re-think the picture of early Christianity that has become popular.

Personally, I think the latter is the better option. (Of course, I would.) When faced with this kind of conflict, doesn't it make more sense to re-think our interpretation of Scripture (which admittedly provides very little explicit support for the Evangelical model) than to suppose such a radical departure in such a short time?

Monday, December 18, 2006

my son, the deacon

The other day Ian broke one of Julie's Christmas decorations--a snowman hanger that we had on one of the dining room door handles. Apparently he thought it looked enough like a censer to walk around swinging it until the wire broke. When that attempt was foiled, he found a box of dinosaur puzzles with a string handle and resumed censing.

I'm also pleased to report that he seems to be adjusting to the new routine of attending different churches. Last week was the first time we got a ride to Holy Cross, and although I went over the day's agenda with him several times that morning before we left, and he seemed OK with it at the time, when it came to walking out the door, he started freaking out about parting from Mommy. He'd calmed down by the time we got to where Julie was dropping us off, but the goodbye was still pretty tearful. Fortunately, he regained composure before we got to the door, and he was fine the rest of the morning. (It's a typical pattern, reminiscent of King David, who mourned in agony and fasted and prayed while his son was dying, and stopped once he was gone.) This week, he took things much better. He wasn't exactly excited about the hand-off, but he didn't cry, and he went under his own power. I don't know if the hope of seeing kids dressed as animals for the Christmas pageant helped.

As for me, I had my first rejection this morning from a homeless person. I normally give only to those who are actually asking--holding a sign, asking out loud, or whatever. I suppose it's possible that I jumped to conclusions about this guy. More likely, he didn't want to be seen taking anything on a bus, since I'm sure they're not supposed to panhandle there. In any case, I'm glad I at least made the offer. There are a lot of times when I feel like I ought to do something and fear keeps me from acting. I thought this was going to be another of those occasions, but at the last minute I worked up enough courage. I ended up thanking God that I had the chance to feel rejected. Once I got over the initial shock, it felt a whole lot better than regret over having done nothing. I know it sounds ridiculous, but that's just how far I have to go. I'll take what I can get, but I have so much more growing to do. God, be merciful to me a sinner!

That's probably going to do it for me until after (Western) Christmas. We're heading out of town to spend the holiday with family. (One of these years I'll get to a Christmas service at Holy Cross!) I expect my next time in Church will be Theophany. In the spirit of anticipation, I'll say it now: Christ is Born! Glorify Him!

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Hail Mary, ordinary?

I really don't intend to respond to every message in the Christmas series at my wife's church, but I guess so far it's shaping up that way. Perhaps it's inevitable that I would have something to say about a message on Mary, regardless of which Evangelical is giving it. I want to say first of all that I think there's a lot of good in the message--Mary is significant for her response to the annunciation, she herself was all about pointing others to her Son, indeed she would have been embarrassed by the kind of attention given to her since then, and what made her response unique had to do with her unique spiritual preparation. All are excellent points, and all would be affirmed by the Tradition of the Church. (I suppose that might surprise a lot of Evangelicals.) I also appreciate his application point, that young people should be encouraged to emulate Mary in their own walk with God.

On the other hand (there's always another hand, isn't there?), I do take some serious issue with his overstated argument about how ordinary Mary was, and the resulting failure to make some important connections. I guess I would sum up my challenge with this question: Was it coincidence that God chose someone with such a unique spiritual life? You see, he acknowledges a uniqueness, when he brings up the question he and the other staff discussed earlier in the week--how could Mary have had that kind of faith in response to the angel's message? When you think about the implications--the life it would mean for her, for her son--how could she trust God so completely? Their answer was that it was her connection to Scripture. Her song exhibits an exceptional degree of both knowledge and internalization of the Old Testament, particularly for a girl in that culture. He says that she must have had amazing parents and an amazing local rabbi, to have gained such intimate knowledge of Scripture. He even refers to the tradition that her parents were named Joachim and Anna and says he'd like to meet them someday.

But Tradition could also tell him that Mary was devoted to God as a child, that as with Samuel in the Old Testament, Mary was born in answer to prayer and was dedicated to service in the temple. She grew up surrounded by the liturgy of Israel. She developed a strong walk with God and chose a life of virginity, but because there was no place for adult women to serve as virgins in the temple, and because her parents had already died, she was betrothed to the elder kinsman Joseph. Tradition could also remind him that God chooses people when they are adequately prepared for the task at hand. Yes, Mary is important for the way she responded, but her response did not take God by surprise. He did not luck out with the choice. Her life to that point had been her preparation, and God was in that process as much as he was in the miraculous event of her virginal conception.

It seems to me that more than our image of Mary suffers when we go out of our way to make her seem ordinary--when we think that her longings consisted of things like being pretty, or getting a puppy for Christmas, or finding a husband. This is not to say that she had no ordinary human interests, but what is there about her that would lead us to think she was so distracted by the mundane concerns of ordinary teenagers (particularly ordinary teenagers today, who usually get to delay even the normal responsibilities of adult life much longer than their ancient counterparts)? How do we look at her extraordinary intimacy with God and with Scripture, her extraordinary faith, to accept in a moment such a profound message for her life, and conclude that she must have been like any other young woman her age? Don't we believe that intimacy with God makes a difference in our priorities, in our longings? Do we imagine that with such preparation in her life, there was nothing visibly different about her until this one, pivotal moment?

I would submit that such a view lowers our expectations of what God can do in each of our lives. It is symptomatic of a deficient respect for the saints in general. Is any greater evidence needed of why saints are important in our worship and spiritual growth? Without seriously grasping their success, we have no reason to expect that we could ever be seriously different from our fallen selves. Sure, there might be improvements here and there, but a truly successful spiritual life? That is little more than a nice idea. Without saints, we idolize ordinariness. Much like the historian who says miracles in the Bible must not have happened, because we don't normally observe such things, or the biologist who says creation must not have happened, because we see only these ongoing processes around us, the principle of ordinariness starts from what we observe here and now, and explains away anything that doesn't conform. We see a bunch of ordinary people around us, so that must be all there is. It's all there ever has been, and all there ever will be--so don't expect too much. The alternative works the other way around--look to the saints who have gone before. Countless people have lived radical lives for God. If you don't see any around you, get on your knees and repent. It's possible, it's what he wants for us, and it's the only life worth pursuing.

Friday, December 08, 2006

humbugs of the world unite!

An interesting little article in Christianity Today highlights the return of "Christmas" among retailers this year. (Frankly, I hadn't noticed a difference, but maybe that's because I still have to do my shopping.) Perhaps more interesting are the last couple of paragraphs:

Those who engage in combat to remind others of "the reason for the season" would do well to remember that the Christmas season as such has only existed for about a century and a half. The 1,500-year-old Christian season that precedes December 25 is Advent, a time of fasting, penitence, and somber waiting. Protestants who eschew Advent because of an association with Rome have precedent for doing so. But the Reformers, Puritans, colonial Baptists, and others who gave rise to modern evangelicalism either passed Christmas Day with a simple worship service, or strongly opposed such a "popish" observance.

But please, the next time you're in Wal-Mart and the clerk wishes you "Merry Christmas," don't get an angry look in your eye, poke your finger into the clerk's chest, and say, "It's Advent! Christmas isn't until December 25!" That would be really annoying.
I'm reminded of a book I read (can't recall the title) a couple of years ago, about the history of Christmas celebration. It highlighted the way in which commercialism went hand-in-hand with the shift to the family-centered holiday that we know today. Back in the days of serfs and lords, the season was a time to celebrate the harvest and enjoy the newly-brewed alcohol and newly-slaughtered meat. Agricultural life naturally slowed down in the winter, so people had more free time, and it was part of a good lord's responsibility to his underlings to give them a chance to share in what they'd produced. In the wake of the industrial revolution and associated urbanization, the system broke down. Nameless, faceless employees still saw job prospects suffer in the winter months, but their relationship to the wealthy had become more detached. In place of the more congenial celebrations of an earlier time, roving bands would barge into the rich neighborhoods, demanding handouts. (Sort of like trick-or-treating for adults, but louder and scarier.) Needless to say, the upper classes weren't happy with these new holiday traditions.

The book goes on to explain how the season was re-shaped into a more friendly, less class-conscious occasion. It looks at literary evidence, like Dickens's A Christmas Carol, where the lead poor guy and the lead rich guy (who didn't start life that way) are both white-collar. The closest Scrooge comes to the truly indigent is when he is solicited for a charitable donation by noblemen, who are themselves even richer than he is. And this marks one of the shifts, as the idea of the well-off giving charitably moves from the arena of direct contact to that of giving to an organization. Another shift in giving patterns focused the giving on parents to children--still paternalistic, but it redirected the exchange to a more socially palatable setting. This is where commercialism came into play, because obviously children already had ready access to their parents' kitchens. Now, it had to be about the novelty of the gifts they would buy for them. The book also looks at "The Night before Christmas" (I don't think that was the actual name of the poem--"A Visit from St. Nicholas," maybe?), which replaces the night-time visit of obnoxious workers with that of a cute little elf (notice that at this stage, he was little and non-threatening), who gives gifts instead of taking from those he visits. Now everyone could be on the receiving end of the Christmas spirit (consumption, not giving). And of course, he quickly became a commercial icon.

Anyway, the shift took Christmas celebration from something more akin to Mardi Gras, and made it about charitable donations, family, and of course shopping. I thought it was a very interesting take on the season, and I think it highlights the complexity involved. Can we de-commercialize Christmas and still keep it a prominent holiday in our society? And if so, what kind would it be? Back to something like its raucous ancestor? One thing the book notes is that there's always been some kind of religious observance involved, but it tends to exist on the fringes. It's not what really gets people going, and if that's all there was, it wouldn't be much of a holiday in the scope of society as a whole. Is it possible to redeem Christmas without taking it apart? Do we want it purified as a churchly event, if that means it becomes irrelevant to the rest of society?

In a sense, the questions run along the lines of New Calendar vs. Old Calendar. When you boil it down, the only thing that's significantly gained (in my opinion) by following the New Calendar is the opportunity to celebrate Christmas with everyone else around us. Assuming, of course, that that is a gain. Which do we prefer? keeping Nativity separate from the "corrupt" holiday that Christmas has become (and taking advantage of post-Christmas sales to boot), or engaging with our culture, to sanctify the holiday where it stands (perhaps in the same way that we got Dec 25 in the first place, as an existing holiday that was suitably close to Theophany)? I'm not sure I have a good answer.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

children sitting in the market

I came across some interesting remarks in Bl. Theophylact the other day. He writes regarding Matt 11:
16-17. But whereunto shall I liken this generation? It is like unto children sitting in the market, and calling unto their fellows, and saying, We have piped unto you, and ye have not danced; we have mourned unto you, and ye have not lamented. It is the malcontent nature of the Jews that He is speaking of here. For as they were cantankerous, neither John's asceticism nor Christ's simplicity pleased them. they were like foolish little children who are never satisfied--whether one cries for them or plays the pipe for them, they are not pleased.

18-19. For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, He hath a devil. The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, Behold a man gluttonous, and a drunkard, a friend of publicans and sinners. He compares John's way of life to mourning, for John showed great severity both in words and deeds, and His own life on earth He compares to piping, that is, to the sound of the flute. For the Lord was most gracious and pleasing, condescending to all that He might win all, bringing the good tidings of the kingdom, and He was not severe in appearance as was John. But Wisdom is justified by her children. . . . For I, on My part, have done everything, yet you, by your refusal to believe, prove that I Who omitted nothing am justified.
What interests me here is how the idea can extend (cautiously) to the response I've seen in some Evangelicals when confronted with Orthodox theology. Now, I want to say up front that I'm not trying to equate any Evangelical's response to Orthodoxy with the response of the Jews to Jesus. There is at least a quantitative difference, if not a qualitative one. But I do think there is an analogy that's worth teasing out. The response I've sometimes seen is this. When faced with Orthodoxy's emphasis on a changed life, judgment according to our deeds, etc., they say it is too legalistic and demands of humans what they can never do--to earn salvation by their own efforts. On the other hand, when faced with the suggestion that a person who was never Christian, never part of the Church, perhaps explicitly disavowed Christianity in life, could get to the judgment, stand before Christ, truly know him for the first time, respond with love, and be allowed into heaven, they say it smacks of universalism and leaves things too wide open.

It seems to me that there's some kind of correlation between these divergent responses and those outlined here. John showed a life of severity and asceticism--the need for radical repentance before God's judgment. The Jews looked at him and saw a demon-possessed man. Jesus showed a life of condescension and radical fellowship--loving everyone who came to him, regardless of their background. The Jews called him a glutton and friend of sinners. With our human perception, we might look at the situation and say, they were sensible, balanced people who realized moderation is necessary in all things. They didn't take up with extremists, whether wild-eyed lunatics of the desert or lax, liberal, touchy-feely reformers. And in so doing, we would get the whole situation backward. The truth was not to be found in the safe, middle ground. It was in the living tension between radical asceticism and radical love. Like so many other things about God, we can't be reductionist on this issue. We have to accept the mystery of the apparent contradiction. Sure, one extreme or the other by itself is imbalanced. That's precisely why we need both.

Now let's come back to the Evangelical response to Orthodoxy. A sensible, balanced human might say, extreme legalism is not good, nor is extreme openness to let everyone come in, and search for something in the middle. But in this case, as in the other, the outcome would be wrong. It is the tension between the two poles that leads us to the truth that otherwise eludes our grasp. Orthodoxy is not too legalistic, although if it spoke only of works it would be. Neither is it too loosey-goosey, although if it spoke only of love and welcome it would be. The two apparent extremes actually complement each other. Radical obedience is expected, but only when a loving God has already opened his arms wide to receive those who love him. He redeems them so that they can change into the people they were meant to be. Radical welcome is extended, but only to those who have lived in love toward Christ, whether they knew who he was or not, and who respond accordingly when they meet him face to face.

This might seem like a harsh indictment, to associate Evangelicals (at least, those who respond to Orthodoxy in this way) with what Jesus says here. And when I first noticed it, I was hesitant to follow up on the correlation for fear of going too far. I think it's safe enough, though, if you keep reading into Bl. Theophylact's remarks on chap. 12:
31-32. Wherefore I say unto you, Every sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven unto men. And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this age, nor in the age to come. . . . When the Jews saw the Lord eating and drinking, associating with publicans and harlots, and doing all the other things He did as the Son of Man, then they slandered Him as a glutton and drunkard; yet for this they deserve forgiveness, and not even repentance will be required. For they were understandably scandalized. But when they saw Him working miracles and were slandering and blaspheming the Holy Spirit, saying that it was something demonic, how will this sin be forgiven them, unless they repent? So, then, know that he who blasphemes the Son of Man, seeing Him living as a man, and says that He is a friend of harlots, a glutton, and a drunkard because of those things which Christ does, such a man will not have to give an answer for this, even if he does not repent. For he is forgiven, as he did not realize that this was God concealed. But he who blasphemes the Holy Spirit, that is, the spiritual deeds of Christ, and calls them demonic, unless he repents, he will not be forgiven. For he does not have a reasonable excuse to slander, as does the man who sees Christ with harlots and publicans and then slanders.
So their reaction in chap. 11 was bad, but it was understandable, and they will be forgiven, even without repentance. In the same way, I take comfort that Evangelicals who find Orthodox theology scandalous on this point will also be forgiven their failure to grasp what it all really means. There may be other things that are more obvious, for which they must give an account, but their objection here is understandable. That doesn't make it any less real an obstacle, of course, and we who accept Orthodox teaching should do what we can to help them understand the truth. We're maximalist on obedience anyway. We don't ask what is the least we can do to get into heaven, and neither should we be satisfied with knowing that a particular mistaken idea isn't quite so bad, because it will be forgiven.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Daniel needs a few more beasts

There's a cool visual representation of Middle East ruling powers throughout history. It stops short of the current era of U. S. colonialism, but perhaps it is too early to draw the borders on that one. I suppose it doesn't have that much to do with Orthodoxy, except of course that it generally shows what happened with the territories of the ancient patriarchates.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Zechariah and Gabriel

This morning I went with my wife to the evangelical church. The pastor was starting his Christmas series of sermons, called My Christmas Prayer! which will cover passages from Luke's nativity narrative, with a focus on God answering prayer. (It's subtitled The Christmas Story by Dr. Luke, which I suppose gives the Evangelist some credibility in our modern, expert-focused culture, but leaves him safely in the realm of academia without any troublesome notion of personal holiness, as in Saint.) This first segment comes from the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, where God supernaturally provides them with a son. The preacher understood Gabriel's reference to Zechariah's prayer in the way that I have always heard it (and thought about it myself)--that he and Elizabeth had spent decades praying for a son, and finally God was answering them. (And poor Zechariah just wasn't ready for an answer after so long with no response, which led him to respond skeptically and end up mute for the next nine months.) After coming home, I decided to read Bl. Theophylact on this passage and found a somewhat different take: "Surely Zacharias was not praying for a son. Was he not praying for the sins of the people?"

Theophylact's "surely" comes from the traditional understanding that this was in fact the Day of Atonement, and what would have been foremost on Zechariah's mind as he offered in the temple was not his own desire for a son, but the sins of the people. Even putting that thought aside, if one should question whether it was necessarily the Day of Atonement, he was in fact serving in the temple, and something important was going on, because everyone was outside praying while this was going on. That much is clearly stated in the text. What kind of priest would have been thinking about his own personal needs under such circumstances, rather than those of his people? Furthermore, when you stop and think about it, if Zechariah and Elizabeth were clearly past childbearing age, it's unlikely that they would have been praying regularly for a son even then. Being righteous people, they would have accepted that God had chosen not to give them children and moved on with their priorities.

So, Theophylact goes on to give two possible readings of what's going on here. Either way, the answered prayer is the prayer about the sins of the people. One option is that John will be an answer to that prayer, because he will call the people to repentance and prepare the way for the one who will take away those sins. The other is that Elizabeth's pregnancy and the child to come are a confirmation that God has in fact heard Zechariah's prayer. Either way, the birth is not the object of the prayer, but the unexpected means of its fulfillment or the confirming sign that it will be answered. This makes a great deal of sense to me. It reinforces the notion that God answers prayer in surprising ways, but it turns the emphasis to prayer for bigger, deeper spiritual issues, particular when offered for the sake of others, rather than prayer for our own desires. And God answers the prayer by providing what Zechariah and his wife couldn't even bring themselves to hope for. How cool is that?

Another interesting reading from Bl. Theophylact comes in v. 20, where he understands siopon to mean "deaf" rather than "mute." He doesn't seem to address any question here over what the word might mean. It is the participle form of a verb meaning "to be silent," and is usually translated "mute," which makes what follows ("and unable to speak") redundant. If it means here "to be in silence," i.e., unable to hear, the two afflictions are different but complementary. Perhaps it is only the desire to avoid redundancy that led to this interpretation, but it would also explain why they signal to Zechariah rather than ask him vocally what to name John. I've understood it as a misunderstanding--that because he couldn't talk, they assumed he couldn't hear--but it would fit quite nicely if he was in fact struck deaf and mute. And Theophylact's point is well taken, that it was a fitting response, that "for not giving heed, he was chastened with deafness; and for speaking back, he was chastened with muteness."

I find it a particularly interesting interpretation, in light of the fact that he finishes out his days of service in the temple. When I was at the Society of Biblical Literature conference, I attended a session on deafness in the Bible, in which one of the presenters argued that it was possible for a priest of Israel to serve while deaf. He looked at the priestly literature (mostly Leviticus, with some other material from the books of Moses) and found that while for instance blindness would disqualify a man from being a priest, deafness would not. He also noted that the rituals performed in the sanctuary were for the most part done without any need to speak, even to the point of including several hand gestures, which may suggest that they had a whole system worked out to maintain a "holy silence." It would fit that Zechariah was able to finish his service, even if he was deaf and mute.