Advent Stories: The Cousin

They call it the Holy Place, but given enough time, even holy places can seem ordinary. That’s what I thought seven months ago, when Zechariah was chosen to go into the temple to burn incense before the Lord.

Just another offering. Just the same old temple, the psalms of worship I’d heard so often, the rules and rituals and routine of life. There hadn’t been an incident of smiting in centuries. Or a miracle, for that matter.

Oh, we prayed for one…but we never expected an answer to our prayers. And certainly not one like this.

Even wives of priests forget what holiness means, every now and then.

Now the whole town knows what happened that day. I didn’t even get the excitement of being the first to tell my family I was expecting. Ah, well. We’ve probably had enough surprises this year anyway.

The angel told Zechariah my soon-to-be-born son is supposed to be a messenger like Elijah.

So. Our boy is going to be like the mountain-man prophet who exploded in and out of Israelite politics with declarations of famine and rain, life and death. And he’s to be a Nazarite, a child of oath, like Samson, the long-haired strong man with no self-control and a talent for causing destruction with bones, city gates, flaming foxes, and whatever else happens to be on hand.

Not the role models I would have chosen, but what can I say? You can’t argue with God. Zechariah tried, and look where it got him.

“What does that mean?” I asked my husband. “What sort of gifts should people bring to our son? Fire-and-brimstone resistant blankets? A toy raven, perhaps? A Baby’s First Altar builder set?”

That’s what I said, but what I was really asking was: “Why us? How do we raise a child who will prepare the way for the Lord?”

Zechariah didn’t tell me. Hasn’t spoken a word since he left the temple, actually.

I have to admit…it’s a nice change. I love my husband, but the way he talks…even his studying isn’t a solitary activity. He’ll talk to himself, me, even the long-dead author of whatever Scripture he’s reading. Leave it to him to even read like an extrovert.

Lately, it’s been quiet, peaceful. Almost too quiet, which is why I welcomed my cousin Mary’s visit. And now I know the answer to some of my questions, at least.

Our John will prepare the way for Mary’s child. The baby jumped inside my womb—nearly knocked me over in his excitement—the minute she called out to me, and I knew. Somehow, I knew the news my virgin cousin was bringing to her old, barren relative six months along with child.

I told the story back to her before she had a chance to get it out—that our Lord had chosen her to be the mother of the Messiah.

cousins

It sounds crazy, I know. But what can I say? There’s a bit of the unexpected in our Lord, a sense of humor, you might say, a love for reversing our expectations. A bit like Joseph, Mary’s betrothed. I always liked him. A solid man, but not as serious as Zechariah’s priest friends. They act like “Thou shalt not laugh” is the unspoken eleventh commandment.

If Joseph were here now, he wouldn’t demand to know why Zechariah can’t speak or why I insist on the name John for my son. He’d make a joke about whether I have any pregnancy craving for prunes, then deliver a hand-carved cradle which he would pretend was “nothing much, just a little something I made in the shop.” And he’d never leave Mary’s side.

What will he think, when he hears about Mary? An angelic visitation re-told sounds like a hungover delusion at best and an outrageous excuse at worst. Will the Lord grant him enough trust to believe in secondhand stories of miracles?

And what will happen to Mary if he doesn’t?

Zechariah is always reading from the book of Job. He loves it. It’s all the arguing Job does with his friends, I think—a full scroll of back-and-forth debate. I’ll find Zechariah hunched over his scroll, muttering, “You tell them, Job,” or “That’s a logical fallacy, and you know it!” Job and his righteousness took quite the verbal beating.

And I can’t help but think—that will be Mary, as soon as word gets around, once she begins to show. Surrounded by so-called friends who doubt her word and her purity and scoff at her protestations of innocence.

Knowing Mary, she won’t rally herself to give long-winded speeches in defense of herself and God like Job did. She’ll meekly bow her head under the battery of accusations, cry a bit, and crumble. My dear, sweet Mary.

But, no. She’s stronger than I know. The Lord chose her for a reason. He doesn’t call us without equipping us, not for anything. She doesn’t need me to defend her, to protect her. God will be with her.

And, anyway, even Job had to be silent in the end. The answer to all the debate and questions wasn’t better logic or a reveal of God’s motivation or a complete understanding of what would happen next. Just God himself, his character and power and holiness.

Maybe that’s why the angel struck Zechariah silent. Not to give me nine months of peace and quiet. It was his way of reprising the voice that spoke to Job from the whirlwind, saying, “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?”

Yes. That’s it. Zechariah met the God of Job, and now he is speechless. As we all should be every now and then in the face of the Holy One.

Well, I won’t take the role of Job’s shrew of a wife, that’s for sure. “Curse God and die.” Her one shining moment to go on record in the Scriptures and that’s the advice she gives. Oy.

No, I’ve got a better idea. I’ll say with Job, and with my husband and Mary when our sons are born, “I know that you can do all things and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.”

And then…I’ll wait to be amazed by what our unexpected God will do next.

(This is the first in a series of “interviews” with fictional versions of real-life witnesses to the first Christmas. I’ll be writing one new story a week until Christmas.)

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