New year, new possibilities. The potential of clean slates and fresh starts stirs our hopes. Resolved to do things better, we embark upon new beginnings. But of course, before long our resolve is tested with tension that pushes back. It is in the throes of such tension we feel our old nature clawing into our new beginnings. Devotion becomes a chore, hope becomes a burden, and once again, stuck becomes our status quo, and frustration becomes our feeling. And with it, an old familiar sense of failure. But it doesn’t have to.
A week ago, on Christmas Eve, I read in the birth narratives of Luke 1-2 how the angel Gabriel presented new beginnings to two key people, Zechariah and Mary.
Mary’s dutiful submission is the response we always hope to imitate. All in, one hundred percent. But if we’re honest, Zechariah is who we usually are. And that’s okay.
Zechariah was an aged priest; one day while serving at the temple, he entered the sanctuary to offer incense. The angel Gabriel appeared and told him he and his barren wife would have a son who would “make ready a people prepared for the Lord”. When Zechariah responds with a bit of skepticism, Gabriel tells him he would be mute until the day his son is born.
Was Zechariah’s response due to a lack of faith? Not necessarily; 1:6 describes both him and his wife as righteous and blameless. I think Zechariah’s response was due to an abundance of disappointment.
The loss of Israel’s autonomy to Rome had filled those days with a heaviness that made hope feel in short supply. Even if Israel would live on, Zechariah and Elizabeth’s childlessness made it seem their family would not. Considering such circumstances, Zechariah’s response was reasonable.
Like Zechariah, our hope for new beginnings can cave to the tensions heightened by old memories. What began as joyful anticipations can gradually turn to anxiety, frustration, failure, disappointment, anger, grief, and disorientation. How are we ever to find the way forward through this tension?
I think Gabriel gives us the answer in what he gave Zechariah. Perhaps the muted silence was not so much a punishment from God as a gift of time and spirit-spaciousness for quiet contemplation. This period of prayerful pondering could help disenthrall his weary mind from the world’s chaos and disappointment and instead infuse it with greater joy at the great salvation work God was ushering into Israel’s history and Zechariah’s family.
When Elizabeth gave birth months later, amidst confusion over the boy’s name, Zechariah wrote down a response that showed his mind was finally in complete alignment with what Gabriel had declared. His tongue finally loosened, nine months of accumulated hopefulness poured out in exclamations of worship reflecting upon how Israel’s salvation-past was being brought into the present through the arrival of the Messiah whom his own son would precede in proclaiming God’s good news.
Zechariah’s experience illustrates that our response to new beginnings is more than our initial reaction; a completed response often needs to be brought to full term. A term that must navigate tension, concern, and frustration; but with prayerful contemplation introduced, it becomes a term that can also experience illumination, wonder, worship, and resolve. What tension tries to seal shut, prayerful contemplation ventilates and circulates.
As you cast your thoughts to the horizon of new beginnings, may prayerful contemplation constantly keep your thoughts centered; may the tension between old memories and new possibilities become fuel in the fires of a faith that moves forward into the future God authors.