In today's second reading, poor Zachariah gets a one-two punch: first he was doing his duty as priest, burning incense in the sanctuary, when he's terrified by the sudden appearance of an angel. He survives the shock, but then the angel tells him that his wife will bear a son -- and his first response is, "“How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”
A reasonable response. They were old; they thought their time had come and gone, and it seemed obvious that God was going to allow them to remain in the "disgrace" of being childless. But the angel answers,
“I am Gabriel, who stand before God.
I was sent to speak to you and to announce to you this good news.
But now you will be speechless and unable to talk
until the day these things take place,
because you did not believe my words,
which will be fulfilled at their proper time.”
Harsh! What is Zachariah's mistake here? After all, Mary said something very similar when Gabriel came to her: "How can this come about?"
But there is a subtle difference between their words: Mary seems just to be asking how -- literally, how the heck is this going to happen, since I am a virgin? But Zachariah's question is different: "How shall I know this?" He isn't simply confused; he's skeptical. He wants some kind of logical proof -- even though, seconds ago, he was nearly knocked flat by the glory and terror of this messenger from God.
Perhaps that is what was wrong with Zachariah's response: he wanted to see the logic of it all, word for word, step by step, even as a visitor from heaven is standing right in front of him. And the angel, with glorious impatience, tells him, Oh, you think we need to stop and talk this through? How about this: no more talking for you, not until that baby is in your arms. There will be the proof you want, Zachariah.
Theologian Thomas Neal tells of an encounter he recently had on an airplane -- not with an angel, but with a self-described "lukewarm agnostic." Neal says this man
skipped over the awkward niceties and asked me point-blank why, as a Catholic theologian, I believed that abortion was wrong.
Since he’d identified himself as a “lukewarm agnostic,” I offered him a series of what I believed were rationally compelling arguments that melded a little science and a little philosophy. He listened respectfully, and then said something that took me so off guard I was rendered speechless. He said,
It’s a funny thing about you Catholics. Whenever I ask some Evangelical this question, they immediately invoke belief in God and preach Jesus to me. But whenever I ask a Catholic — if they even oppose abortion — they try to reason with me. If you don’t mind my asking, why hold back the Jesus card?
I think I babbled out a few points about logic and science being common ground between a Catholic like me and an agnostic like him. But as he apparently wanted to have the last word, he said,
I have to tell you, personally, as somebody who likes to think of himself as a reasonable kinda guy, I like the Catholic way better; and it’s less pushy. But my bet’s that while your approach might help people think more about abortion, the Evangelical’s probably gonna get the most converts to Christianity.
Neal isn't advocating a squishy, emotionalized approach to evangelization. But he says that logic isn't enough:
Though I still believe, as Catholics must, that good, logical, clarifying thinking is part of authentic dialogue and evangelizing, for Christians the “let us reason together” approach is simply not sufficient.
It's got to be both/and. He quotes a theology professor of his, who said:
Though good thinking can lead you to God, only the Spirit of Jesus can lead you into God. While human curiosity leads you to study the Baptismal font, divine love dares you to jump in!
In the movie O Brother Where Art Thou?, Delmar saw it, and he jumped right in:
What happens to Delmar next? I don't even remember. But I will watch that entire movie just to see the baptism scene. Something happened to Delmar that should happen to everyone: He saw someone offering Jesus, and his only thought was, "I want in!"
The responsorial psalm in today's Mass, which precedes the story of Zachariah, is this:
My mouth shall be filled with your praise, and I will sing your glory!
That is what is attractive. That is what will draw people in to the Church. This is what will make us all take that leap. Arguments have their place, and no Christian should try to slide by with simply having a relationship with Jesus, and never bothering to learn more about what that relationship actually requires. But when it comes down to it, that encounter -- that dazzling, fearful love that God offers us -- that's what we need to be sharing with the world -- and seeking for ourselves.
The baby that Zachariah eventually held in his arms? You remember who it was: John the Baptist. You could say that the right path to salvation was embodied in him. He himself was the illustration of how we are to respond when God comes to us. That's what Gabriel was insisting: that at some point we stop talking, stop arguing, stop reasoning, and simply praise God.