The gestation of hope

Text: Luke 1:1-25 (the birth of John the Baptist foretold)

One of the ideas that I’m discussing with the Ministry and Personnel Committee for a sabbatical in 2019 is a silent retreat. I have never experienced one, although I know several people who speak highly of them. I am investigating two Catholic centres, one in Guelph and one in Calgary, that offer such retreats. And there are other retreat centres — Buddhist, Hindu, or secular – that help seekers spend time in silence as a spiritual practice.

Silent retreats come in different configurations and lengths. Some last for a weekend, others for a week, and some for as long as one-month.

However, I have never heard of a voluntary silent retreat that lasts for 40 weeks. This is the length of the time of silence ordered for Zechariah by the Angel Gabriel in today’s Gospel reading.

The fanciful story about Zechariah and the miraculous pregnancy of his wife Elizabeth, which results in the birth of John the Baptist, is found only in Luke.

Scholars have ascertained that when Luke wrote his Gospel, he had a manuscript of Mark in front of him. But the material found in the first two chapters of Luke is unique to him. This Advent, we will hear the entire first chapter of Luke, which tells of the miraculous conceptions of both John the Baptist and of his cousin Jesus. Then on Christmas Eve, we will hear the first 20 verses of the second chapter of Luke, which tells of Jesus’ birth in a manger in Bethlehem.

The first-written Gospel, Mark, contains no stories about Jesus before his baptism as an adult in the River Jordan by John the Baptist. Matthew precedes this story with one about the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. However, Matthew’s version of the first Christmas has no manager, no shepherds, and no angels singing “peace on earth, good will to all.”

Luke, like Matthew, adds a prelude to Mark, and his contains not only a miraculous conception and birth story for Jesus — although one quite different than Matthew’s – but also a backstory for John. Only Luke contains the ideas that John the Baptist is not just a prophet who baptizes Jesus, but is also a close relative of Jesus, and one whom like Jesus who is conceived in a miraculous fashion.

The story we heard today about Zechariah and Elizabeth is the final one of a long series in the Bible about conceptions involving impossibly old people . It is told just before the story of another miraculous conception, that involving Elizabeth’s young relative Mary who is the mother of Jesus, and which we will hear next week.

Zechariah is frightened when the Angel Gabriel appears to him, perhaps because parenting is the most difficult and risky thing most people undertake; and because the prospect of becoming a parent in old age is not a rosy one.

Gabriel is angry that Zechariah expresses skepticism at his impending fatherhood. So, he strikes him mute until his son John is born, presumably about 40 weeks later. This is the long silent retreat that Zechariah is forced to endure.

As we will hear in two weeks, Zechariah undergoes a spiritual transformation during this enforced silence. He emerges from it with praise, joy, and hope on his lips.

I hope to gain spiritual insight during a time of silence during my sabbatical next spring, although one that will only last for a week and not 40.

The number “40” comes up many times in the books of the Bible. In the story of Noah, God makes it rain for 40 days and 40 nights. The Hebrew people wander the Sinai desert for 40 years before entering the Promised Land. Moses spends three consecutive periods of 40 days communing with God on Mount Sinai. Jesus spends 40 days in the desert after his baptism.

One hypothesis for the repeated use of the number 40 in these stories is that human gestation lasts about 40 weeks. When a biblical writer states that 40 days, weeks, or years have passed, it may symbolize that something new has gestated in the heart of an individual or community. This also describes the purpose of Advent – to spend time, often in silence, preparing for the winter solstice and our annual celebration of the birth of Jesus and the rebirth of light and hope in our hearts.

However, silence is not appreciated by all of us. For Zechariah it is a punishment.

At our book study of John Spong’s book “Unbelievable” last week, some expressed discomfort with the brief time of silence we observe after my weekly reflection. Would it not be better to use this space to discuss the sermon instead of silently reflecting on what has been said?

Perhaps; and I plan to provide more opportunities for us to share and discuss during our Sunday gatherings next year.

I also can see the utility of having preachers shut up, at least for a week. Those like me who live out our calling by talking might gain more than many from enforced periods of silence.

Silence can also build hope. On Friday morning, an essay about silence and hope arrived in my In-Box from the Centre for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico. The Centre, run by one of my heroes, the Franciscan priest Richard Rohr, is one of the places I have investigated in the search for ideas for my 2019 sabbatical.

I will now read this essay by one of the faculty members at the Centre, Cynthia Bourgeault. In a reflection called “Mystical Hope,” she writes:

“Must we be whip-lashed incessantly between joy and sorrow, expectation and disappointment? Or is it possible to live from a place of greater equilibrium and find a deeper and steadier current?

The good news is this deeper current exists and that it can be found on a journey to the headwaters of Mystery. This journey to the wellsprings of hope is not something that will change one’s life in the short term. Rather, it will change our innermost way of seeing. From there, the externals will inevitably rearrange.

Meditation is a key spiritual practice that nurtures our ability to perceive and respond to divine hope.

Below our sense of separateness and isolation is another level of awareness. Thomas Keating calls it “spiritual awareness.” He contrasts it with the “ordinary awareness” of ego-centred thinking. While the ego works by noting differences and distinctions, spiritual awareness is an innate perception of kinship and of belonging to the whole.

The only thing blocking the awareness of this whole is ordinary thinking. If we can turn that off for a while, then the other can take shape in us and become a reality we experience. When we experience it, we remember that we belong in the heart of God, that we are a part of this heart forever, and that we cannot possibly fall out of it, no matter what may happen.

In the contemplative journey, as we swim into the deep waters of the springs of hope, we begin to experience what it means to lay down self, to let go of ordinary awareness and to surrender ourselves to the mercy of God. As hope flows out from this center, we discover within ourselves a mysterious plenitude that allows us to act in ways that our ordinary hearts and minds could not possibly sustain.”

Bourgeault is saying that our connection to the Divine gives us a hope that is stronger than any “success” or “failure” we may experience. Further, she says silent meditation is a good way to connect us to this eternal source of hope.

In the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, I imagine that parenting the boy who becomes the wild man known as John the Baptist would not have been easy for them. But the vicissitudes of everyday life don’t do away with the hope that springs from Zechariah’s lips after 40 weeks of silent waiting.

May we experience a similar hope during this blessed Advent of waiting, watching, and praying.

Amen.