JONATHAN T. PENNINGTON If you grew up with snow at Christmas, you know there’s nothing quite like the silence of a cold winter night. This is not just a sentimental idea—it’s part of God’s creational design. Fresh snow absorbs and dampens sound. Father Joseph Mohr was one such man who reflected on the phe- nomenon of a cold winter night. Mohr was the young priest who penned the words that became the beloved carol we often sing this time of year, “Silent Night.”
In the backstory to Jesus’ birth, we meet another priest, Zechariah, and his wife, Elizabeth. Luke tells us that they were both of priestly descent and were faithful and godly people. But they also suffered greatly—their long marriage had been childless and they were now old. Then a miracle happened: The angel Gabriel told Zechariah that God would answer their decades-long, anguished prayers. They were going to have a son! This story could end there, and it would be a delightful Christmas tale of sadness being replaced with joy. But there’s an unexpected and dark note in the tune that we can’t ignore. Because Zechariah struggled to believe Gabriel’s message (and who wouldn’t?), he was struck mute for the entirety of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. He was silent. Zechariah went from being a respectable, articulate priest of God to an old man who could only communicate with hand signals. This was humbling— even humiliating. What are we to make of this troubling turn? God is always doing a thousand good things in every situation, even if we can’t see them. God’s heart of compassion is yet at work here in providing this old couple with a son of joy. God’s power is mani- fested in eventually using this son to usher redemption into the world. He would become the famous baptizing prophet in the wilderness, calling God’s people back and pointing ahead to Jesus. The story of Zechariah shows us that God continues to do his good and gracious work even amid our brokenness and dis- belief. Zechariah’s stumbling faith was no hindrance to God’s power. Though Zech- ariah’s forced silence was frustrating and humbling, in reality, it was a gift. Through this negative miracle, God showed Zecha- riah and the world that these events were not mere coincidences. No, this silent sea- son demonstrated that God was on the move in a new and powerful way to bring life into the world. As a result, Zechariah’s story didn’t end with judgment, but with God opening his mouth once again to pro- claim the beauty of God’s mercy.