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Sep 16, 2016

What We Can Learn from Zechariah's Doubt and Mary's Faith

Dr. Andrew Swafford

There are a series of parallels between the Angel Gabriel’s visit to Zechariah and his visit to Mary, all of which allude to an important aspect of faith. For example:

  • Both are “troubled” when the angel Gabriel approaches them (Luke 1:12, 29).
  • Gabriel reassures both, saying, “Do not be afraid” (1:13, 30).
  • Both are given the name of the coming child “John/Jesus” (1:13, 31).
  • Gabriel says of both children, “he will be great” (1:15, 32).
  • The work of the Holy Spirit is referenced (1:15, 35).
  • Both Zechariah and Mary respond with a question (1:18, 34).
  • Eventually, both Zechariah and Mary exalt the Lord in the Canticle and Magnificat respectively (1:68-79; 1:46-55).

However, Zechariah doesn’t go into his Canticle as directly as Mary does. And this is part of a larger portrayal of Mary in these early chapters as model disciple—one who hears the word of God and acts on it.

Zechariah and Gabriel

In fact, there is a subtle difference between the way in which Zechariah and Mary phrase their questions. Zechariah’s question could be quite literally (if awkwardly) translated as “According to what will I know this?” (1:18); whereas Mary’s question focuses not on how she will know, but simply on how this mysterious birth will come about: “How will this be since I do not know man” (my translation).

In other words, we can detect a subtle hint of doubt in Zechariah’s question: how can I know this or how can I be certain? For Mary, it’s not so much a matter of how can I know—it’s more “I know this is true because I trust my source, but I’m dumbfounded as to how it will happen.”

The angel clarifies the contrast we are drawing, by responding to Zechariah this way: “And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe” (1:20). Elizabeth, on the other hand, proclaims Mary’s faith: “Blessed is she who believed that there would be fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (1:45).

Zechariah’s unbelief results in him being unable to speak; only after John is born and Zechariah confirms the name given by the angel is Zechariah’s tongue loosed, giving rise to his great Canticle. Mary, on the other hand, is unwavering in faith from the beginning, offering her “fiat” on behalf of all mankind: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (1:38). Accordingly, she moves straight into her Magnificat, immediately after she has visited Elizabeth.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus draws a subtle distinction between his biological and spiritual family: “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (8:21). But a distinction does not necessarily imply a separation.

The First in the Order of FaithMary and Gabriel

Mary uniquely communicates her humanity to the Eternal Son of God—and so the Person born to her is the Person of God the Son (and for that reason, she is called “Mother of God”). But Mary is also first in the order of faith: it is she who—par excellence—hears the word of God and does it. Right after her fiat in verse 38, she responds “with haste,” going to visit Elizabeth (1:39). Further, St. Luke portrays her as prayerfully entering into this great mystery before her: “Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (2:19). And after losing Jesus and finding him (on the third day! 1:46), the text tells us that “they [Mary and Joseph] did not understand the saying that he spoke to them” (1:50). And yet, in faith, Mary “kept all these things in her heart” (2:51).

Faith is not necessarily understanding everything perfectly. But it does mean bringing our questions before the Lord as a child, in a disposition of trust. We believe—not because we’ve examined everything and found it convincing—but because we trust God. And Mary perseveres to the very end, through the Cross and beyond (see John 19:25-27 and Acts 1:14). Mary is our mother and model disciple, showing us the human face of faith, sanctified by God’s glorious grace.

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  • Today’s gospel was the story of Zechariah and it hit me while I was meditating on it that I just didn’t understand, nor have I ever understood, the difference between Mary and Zechariah’s answers to their respective angelic encounters. The Holy Spirit moved me to just google the question “What is the difference between Mary and Zechariah” and it led me to here. What a well written article, and how happy I was to see that Dr. Swafford wrote it! Thank you for this insight!

  • Mary and Joseph wanted a chaste marriage, one without sexual intercourse. See Mystical City of God, by Mary of Agreda, mystic. The angel tells Mary that she shall conceive. Mary says I don’t know, man. Well, for starters, she did know a man, his name was Joseph. Furthermore they were betrothed, and therefore the message should not surprise anyone that’s going to get married that you’re going to conceive a child. However, it is completely impossible to conceive a child without sexual intercourse, something that her and Joseph had agreed upon. Zachariah and Elizabeth had a normal marriage, and late in life births were possible in the Bible, such as Abraham and Sarah, and Suzanna who had Samuel. However, Mary’s response indicates that she had plans to never be with a man. Thus, you can now connect the virgin birth dogma of the Catholic Church and the Perpetual Virginity of the Blessed Mother, in that, Jesus did not have brothers and sisters.

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