The Promise, Doubt, Faith
Zechariah and Our Lady. Their incredulousness in the face of the announcement and their Yes, the beginning of fulfillment. God chose to communicate Himself through the human, and this is why man cannot raise objections. Three years after his death (May 26th, 1999), we offer here the text of a talk by Enzo (1978), our great friend
BY ENZO PICCININI
Zechariah was an Old Testament priest, who was reached by the Angels announcement while he was officiating in the Holy of Holies of the Temple in Jerusalem. At that time, this honor fell to a normal priest once or at the most twice in his life. Therefore, Zechariah must have been very intent and full of devotion and the fear of God. And yet he lacked faith, which has a different and much greater value than ritual and devotion. He was a just man, like his wife, irreprehensible in his observance of the law (Lk 1:6). But he was not ready to welcome the announcement; he did not act with a faith like Abrahams. He asked for a sign (How shall I know this?) and gave a reason for his asking by objecting, For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years (Lk 1:18). Thus he received a negative sign: since he did not believe, he would not be able to speak until what he did not believe in had been fulfilled (Lk 1:20). Being deprived of speech is not just an ordinary punishment; it kept him from publicly rendering glory to God, proclaiming His marvelous works (as Mary would do in the Magnificat). It is thus the perfect match for a lack of faith.
In Lukes theological perspective, Zechariahs sin is linked with the imperfection of the Old Testament. He is the father of John the Baptist, the forerunner, the greatest of those born of woman, but the least in the Kingdom of Heaven (Mt 11:11). The purely natural dimension of man (being born of woman) cannot contain completely the vastness of the coming of God; it limits it always to a measure of its own. Our Lady is first in the Kingdom of Heaven, the first new creature, wide-open to the initiative of God. Everything in her symbolizes the New Covenant, in contrast with Zechariah: she was a woman, which in the society of that time meant a humble role; she lived in an obscure and ordinary village (cf Jn 1:46). God chose this humble instrument in order to affirm His power and to overturn the human measure, ever tempted to impose itself on reality (cf I Cor 1:27-28). The religious and cultural structure of the Temple is left behind and God lives where He is welcomed in pure faith. By now, God is, in history, the irruption of an event, which splits and removes all measures.
The difference between the faith of the Old and the New Covenants lies in the New Covenants object: it is a different and greater promise, it is an event that definitely cannot be measured by human intelligence, it is the definitive mystery that is fulfilled.
In front of God who comes, man is called to a faith that welcomes the event fully and totally, and a faith like this can only be a gift.
Will to obey
Our Lady is the eternal type of this faith. She does not raise any objections, even though the announcement to her is even more incredible than the one made to Zechariah: it is conception by a virgin, not even conception by a woman getting on in years. The question she asks comes from a will to obey, the request for a command so that she may obey. It is unlimitednot blindfaith. Already earlier she had been wondering why she was receiving such a solemn greeting. Later, Luke notes that Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart. To her, the sign (the barren Elizabeth had conceived) was given without being asked for, as a confirmation of Gods plan, and it was immediately interpreted by an act of obedience, because Mary set out on her journey. Her purpose was not to check if the sign were true or not, but to place herself already at the disposal of the mission entrusted to her. The encounter between Mary and Elizabeth is in reality the encounter between Jesus and John, who receives the Spirit while still in his mothers womb, and through his mothers voice exultingly acknowledges the Messiah. Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord (Lk 1:45). This acclamation (Blessed) by Elizabeth is picked up by Our Lady herself: All generations will call me blessed (Lk 1:48). This blessedness consists also in a new dignity afforded to man: that of being an instrument of Gods plan, of collaborating in the fulfillment of His work of salvation. The event of God would be fulfilled just the same, even without mans acquiescence, because His power is infinite.
Collaborating in the work of God
John the Baptist was born even though Zechariah had doubted. But the lack of faith removes man from collaboration in the work of God; the event takes place just the same, but it does not invade and penetrate existence, it does not become the rule, principle, content of the existence of the one whom God wanted to involve in His action. Faith gives Our Lady a function: Behold the handmaid of the Lord. It is not so much a declaration of humility, because being a handmaid of the Lord is in the Bible a title of glory. The servant of the Lord, sung by Deutero-Isaiah (Is 42:1 ff; 49:1 ff; 50:4 ff; 52:13 ff) is the instrument by which God saves. The servant par excellence is the Messiah, whose mother Mary is about to become. By referring to herself as the handmaid of the Lord, Our Lady understands that she is part of her Sons function, His passion and His glory. Her first service, her first act of being the handmaid of the Lord, is the Visitation. She carries her Son, who has already begun to be her Lord, to receive the homage of the forerunner, who also is in his mothers womb. This service foreshadows her entire function, which is to bring and present the Son of God to the adoration and glorification of all men. God does not treat man, who is His image, as a passive object of His action, but calls him to collaborate with Him. The manner of doing this, for man, is faith, the overcoming of any criterion of his own in order to live solely as adherence to the mysterious and powerful initiative of the saving God.