This past weekend was graduation weekend for my youngest daughter. She is no longer a high-schooler, but an adult, on her way to college. Of course, I say that proudly, but also wearily, as we hosted family from out of town. Which then lead me to being late for this post. I won’t get another excuse like this (until we have to take her to college…) so of course I have to use it.
In any case, the story of Mary and Joseph continues. Elizabeth had given birth to a son after many years of barrenness. According to Jewish tradition, he is to be circumcised on the eighth day following birth. But with a ‘deaf and dumb’ father, things can get a little tricky, especially when traditions are upended by miracles.
The story plays in real time, with each entry signifying a date in her pregnancy. In between entries, imagine the story continuing towards the next highlight. What happens? What does Mary experience during that time as she considers where she is in her pregnancy and what she will be experiencing when she’s given birth?
You can go here to read previous entries. Follow my blog so you can get notification of new postings (see sidebar). Or the book is available for purchase if you prefer not to wait. Note: there are Hebrew words sprinkled through it. You can find a listing of them and their definitions here. The next post will be June 173.
Staring at the blank parchment before her, Mary considers what to write. Everything she has penned to her parents, up to this point, has been unsuccessful to her cause. What else could she say that would change their minds? What words could she use that would make them realize she belonged in Nazareth, not Hebron? That Joseph would not turn her away but embrace their new destiny?
Words fail her though and Mary sets the pen down, feeling disheartened. She quickly chastises herself, though: Zechariah and Elizabeth’s son was to be circumcised today. She had no right to walk around feeling sorry for herself. She had to pull herself together, so she could join them in the festivities.
Mary thinks about the babe; he was perfect and perfectly formed. And there was something about him that brought joy to everyone, especially Zechariah and Elizabeth. Zechariah remained deaf and dumb, despite the malakh’s words, yet this did not stop him from embracing the child. The love in his eyes for him was inimitable. He had begun spending more time away from his studies, enjoying the presence of his family for the first time in months; even smiling more, causing Elizabeth to smile. Mary had never seen her aunt happier than she was now and she knew it was because of what G-d had done for them.
A sense of peace envelopes her and Mary rolls up the parchment. She tucks it away and stands. The letter could wait, she had a celebration to go to.
* * *
“Praised are you, G-d our G-d, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with your commandments and commanded us in the ritual of circumcision.”
With Zechariah by her side and the family behind her, Elizabeth watches as the priest blesses her son, who is sleeping quietly in her brother-in-law, Shmuel’s, arms. The emotions in her heart overwhelm her: G-d had been good to them.
The priest moves to the table beside them and picks up a glass of kiddush. He blesses it and places several drops into the baby’s mouth to help him with the coming pain. He drinks from the cup and passes it to Shmuel, who also partakes of the kiddush, as a symbol of their willingness to share in the child’s pain. The priest then begins the procedure, waking the boy and causing him to cry. Every whimper breaks Elizabeth’s heart, but Zechariah comforts her by taking her hand in his and squeezing it tightly. She reminds herself that the pain was necessary, but only temporary. He would be back in her arms shortly.
The priest completes the circumcision. Shmuel comforts the boy. Because Zechariah still cannot speak, he pronounces the blessing over him, a right usually reserved for the father.
“Blessed are you, G-d our G-d, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with your commandments and commanded us to make him enter into the covenant of Abraham our father.”
Together, everyone else replies, “As he has entered into the covenant, so may he be introduced to the study of Torah, to the wedding canopy, and to good deeds.”
The priest continues his blessing.
“Creator of the universe, may it be your will to regard and accept this performance of circumcision, as if I had brought this baby before your glorious throne. And in your abundant mercy, through your holy angels, give a pure and holy heart to…” He pauses for a moment, his gaze moving between Zechariah and Shmuel. “What is the child’s name?” he asks.
Before Elizabeth can respond for her husband, Shmuel, speaks up.
“Zechariah,” he states.
“No! His name is John.” Though she had received the malakh’s words from Zechariah’s penned description, their potency was still the same; and now having received the fruit of it, she was not going to disobey. John was the name G-d had given him before he was conceived, and it would continue to be his name now that he had entered the earth.
“There is no one by that name in the family, achot. His name should be Zechariah, after his father,” Shmuel insists.
“No,” Elizabeth says firmly, shaking her head. “His name is John.”
The mood in the room quickly shifts as murmuring begins. The same family members who were celebrating with them were now criticizing her lack of respect for Shmuel. The priest calls for everyone’s attention.
“What is the child’s name?” he repeats.
Again, before Elizabeth can reply, Shmuel takes charge. He waves his hand at Zechariah and points to the child. “Name. What would you name the boy?”
Zechariah looks at him blankly and for a moment Elizabeth fears he does not understand. Then he brings his hand up and makes a swirling motion in the air, once, twice, three times before the others understand what he is trying to say.
“Get a tablet and a pen,” someone instructs.
The talking increases, exasperating Elizabeth. This was not what she imagined for her son’s circumcision. Mary turns to her, her expression sympathetic. She knows the truth and Elizabeth was grateful for her support, but it was the family, the friends and the neighbors who needed to know G-d had orchestrated these events—the conception, the birth and now the naming of the child.
John. The name meant ‘G-d has been gracious’ and that was the purpose to which he was born, to show G-d’s grace to his people. Yes, G-d had been silent for many generations now, leaving them to the whims of their goyem masters, but he was still there. He was still concerned for them. He had promises that had yet to be fulfilled, but would be, through her son and Mary’s, the promised Mashiac.
A young child pushes through the crowd, carrying in his hand a tablet and a piece of coal for writing. Zechariah receives the items and concentrates on writing. Around him, the talking ceases as they await his response. Though Elizabeth knows he will back her up, a single thought crawls into her mind, making her faith waver.
What if he doesn’t?
The malakh had said, “You will become dumb and unable to speak until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their proper time.” The events had been fulfilled, yet he was still dumb. It seemed he had accepted his sin of doubt and offered penitence for it. Why then could he not speak? Why wasn’t he healed of his affliction? Surely the birth signified the fulfillment of the malakh’s words. Would G-d orchestrate all else and not return her husband’s voice, especially now that it was needed?
* * *
Zechariah stops writing. Without any change of expression, he turns the tablet to the family and reveals his response:
His name is John.
Still holding the tablet, Zechariah mouths the words that flow so easily from his soul:
His name is John.
This is what the malakh Gabriel had stated; had tried to tell him so many months ago and he dared to doubt the Almighty.
His name is John.
Now he was a father and the child, his child, was perfect.
His name is John.
He had doubted once, never again.
“His name is John.”
The voice speaking is hoarse, aged and unrecognizable. It fills the room and silences everyone.
“His name is John.”
Zechariah looks at the shocked faces around him. No one is speaking. All are staring at him with amazement in their eyes…even Elizabeth. He meets her gaze, still mouthing the response requested of him. Her expression softens, and she smiles.
“His name is John.”
In the silence of the room, Zechariah realizes he is the one talking. It had been a year since he had heard his voice, and, in his guilt, had forgotten what it sounded like. Still, that matters none. Just as Gabriel had promised, he was a father and his son…his son…
Zechariah lets the tablet fall from his hands and he raises his arms upward, praising the G-d who had not just heard, but answered his prayers.
“Thank you, Adonai,” he states, pouring out all the gratitude his heart holds. Those in the room, from the old priest to the youngest child, hold their tongues, listening with astonishment. “Praise be to you, L-rd, G-d of Israel. You have come to your people and redeemed them. You have raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as you said through your holy prophets of long ago, salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us— to show mercy to our ancestors and to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham: to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
“And you, my child,” Zechariah states, as he walks over to his son, who rests in Shmuel’s embrace. He reaches for the child and takes him in his arms, holding him close to his bosom. The child whimpers, but is otherwise calm, tightly swaddled in his blanket. Zechariah was a fool to ever doubt G-d. This was a blessing only he could give.
He turns to Elizabeth, her face beaming with pride. He decides she is more beautiful now than the day he first laid eyes on her and moves over to her side. His gaze falls upon Mary, Elizabeth’s young niece, and though he has only had his wife’s word on the matter, he knows the burden Mary carries—no, the blessing she has been chosen for, a blessing similar to his and Elizabeth’s, yet much, much greater.
Zechariah turns his attention back to his son and continues, his voice cracking with emotion, “You, my son, will be called a prophet of the Most High, for you will go on before the L-rd to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our G-d, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, guide our feet into the path of peace.”
Elizabeth rests her hand on his shoulder. He looks into her eyes and sees the smile that had brought him peace these many years. John sighs loudly and settles in his arms to sleep. And the hush that had spread over the room is lifted. All the people move forward, talking at once, wanting to know what manner of child this was, that G-d’s hand should rest so strongly on him, on Zechariah and on Elizabeth.
* * *
Back at home, Elizabeth pauses for a moment, leaning against a chair to catch her breath. The household bustles around her, trying to get ready for the midday meal. Many more neighbors and friends had joined them since word got out that Zechariah’s voice had returned. Yes, they were there to gawk and gossip, but even that didn’t distract from the joyous occasion: a son from barren loins and a husband restored to her. G-d was indeed good.
Even in the noisy atmosphere, with Rona and Jesse boisterously throwing about commands, Elizabeth hears her niece’s voice. She looks to her right where the girl stands, her hands in front of her. Her eyes filled with awe—the same awe Elizabeth feels.
“Dod said we are ready to begin,” Mary states.
“Good, good,” Elizabeth says, removing her apron. She sets it aside and joins the others at the table. She sits beside Zechariah, who holds their child in his arms. He meets her gaze and smiles. Elizabeth returns the smiles and listens as everyone quiets down. With their attention on Zechariah, they listen as he thanks everyone for joining them, for breaking bread with them and most of all for celebrating with them the miracles G-d had performed on their behalf.
A round of cheers goes up. Elizabeth looks about her at everyone present. They would speak of this day for years to come and all because of the grace of their G-d.
Zechariah raises his hand to silence the guests and turns his head upward to speak the traditional blessing following circumcision:
“G-d, help us to raise this child wisely. Give him strength and help him to grow up to trust in you and perceive you at the appointed times of the year. Thank you for the unhesitating hand of the priest who performed the circumcision to bring him into covenant with you. Send the Mashiac speedily and Prophet Elijah so that your covenant can be fulfilled with the re-establishment of the throne of King David.”
Cheers rise, and the talking begins again. Some speak of the miracle witnessed that day, while others talk of John—surely if his beginning was that wondrous, what would his life be like? Still others speak of dumb Zechariah and barren Elizabeth as if they were still so. Elizabeth hears none of it, though. With one hand on John and the other on Zechariah, she quietly agrees with the blessing and says, “So be it.”