Conversatio Divina

The Angel Appears to Zechariah

Jerry Camery-Hoggatt

01.  Jerusalem – Tissot

Most of our pilgrimage will take us to villages and desert haunts, but the story itself opens in Jerusalem, within the massive temple complex, within the temple, within the sacred enclosure of the temple. French Bible illustrator James Tissot (1836-1902) has recreated the wider context for us in this gouache watercolor, painted as part of a series of three hundred, fifty pieces reconstructing the life of Jesus. Tissot is credited with being the first artist whose work paid painstaking attention to the archeological evidence that was available at the time.

02.  The Angel Appears to Zechariah – Pisano

It is what is happening inside the temple that captures our attention. For that, we turn to one of the panels that grace the doors of the baptistery of the Florence Cathedral. The panel is by Andrea Pisano (1295-1348), and it, too is part of a series, this one containing twenty gilded bronze bas relief panels depicting the life of John. The old man Zechariah is serving as priest before the altar when his work is interrupted by a visitation from the angel Gabriel, who appears beside the altar, his right hand raised in greeting. Zechariah blanches at the sight, but is reassured: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John.”

03.  The Angel Appears to Zechariah – Ghirlandaio

Italian artist Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449–1494) sets the scene within the chancel of a Christian cathedral; Zechariah is celebrating mass when the angel appears, this time resplendent in his rainbow colored wings.

Art critics have often remarked on the lines of dignitaries who have assembled here, no doubt at the insistence of the patron who funded the work. Historically such a grouping is probably impossible; while offering sacrifice within the sacred precinct of the temple, Zechariah would have been alone, and there would have been no one to observe the exchange with the angel. Yet in a sense we are there, too, vicarious participants in a profoundly holy and significant moment. Through the medium of the biblical narrative, we are allowed to overhear the angel, and to share Zechariah’s consternation.

The angel has made his appearance. Zechariah, startled, looks up from his ministrations. For a moment he is on hallowed ground, represented not only by the altar, but also by his bare feet. One is reminded of the voice Moses once heard from the burning bush in the book of Exodus:

“Put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”

The angel speaks only to him:

“Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

The anguish in Zechariah’s voice is palpable: “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” It is an understandable hesitation; he and Elizabeth have tried for children for decades. They are righteous, God-fearing people, and yet this blessing has eluded them.

The observers in the nave seem unaware. Several are engaged in conversation, and none of the eyes are trained on the angel. They are there but they are not there. So Zechariah and the angel are alone after all. Ghirlandaio is signaling us from the 15th Century that one may well be influential enough to insist on being painted into a holy scene, but that does not make one holy. Elizabeth Barrett Browning was right: Earth may indeed be crammed with heaven, and yet only those who see take off their shoes.

04.  Angelic Visit –Tissot

On the surface of it, the angel’s response to Zechariah seems less than kind. For this we return to the work of the Nineteenth Century French watercolorist James Tissot. The angel rises slowly, hovering, preparing for his departure:

“I am Gabriel,” he says. “I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”

He reaches out with his left hand and touches Zechariah on the lips, sealing the deal.

It is an odd way to depart. Good news, a failed test, a fresh trial. What does this tell us of the Gospel? Perhaps that we, like Zechariah, are asked to trust, to hold fast to the promises of God even when we do not understand how they might come to pass, and that in the absence of trust we may find ourselves tongue-tied, disabled participants in the work that God is doing to redeem the world.

05.  Reflective Questions

  1. Have you ever had a startling experience of God, a messenger from God, or a message from God? If so, what were your emotions? Did you feel fear or consternation like Zechariah?
  2. How do you relate to the ideas of sacred spaces like the temple or being on “holy ground” like Zechariah in the “Holy of Holies” or Moses at the burning bush? Are there places where you feel God’s presence more readily or powerfully?
  3. What are the implications of having bare feet?
  4. Is there a situation in your life where you need to hear the reassurance, “Do not be afraid”?
  5. Do you have questions or hesitations about what is happening that you would like to voice in prayer the way Zechariah was able to communicate with the angel?
  6. Are you being invited to trust God in a different or deeper way? Is there a promise from God that feels unfulfilled or confusing and you long to pause in God’s presence with these questions, feelings, and desires to trust despite expectations not being met?
  7. Do you feel like a “tongue-tied or disabled participant in the work that God is doing to redeem the world”? Consider following Zechariah’s experience by entering a time of watchful waiting, prayerful pausing, honestly speaking about this in prayer and listening for God’s answer and gifts.
  8. Did anything else stand out for you in reading about the angel appearing to Zechariah that you feel prompted to explore?

Footnotes

Jerry Camery-Hoggatt holds a PhD in Early Christian Origins from Boston University. He is the author of two books on the Gospel of Mark, two on interpretive method in the study of scripture, and one on the role of narratives in the spiritual journey. His research involves the narrative paradigm as a mode of theological reflection. His published works also include an historical novel set in 13th Century Wales, two Christmas novellas, a collection of short stories, an illustrated children’s book, and an historical novel.