“Zechariah asked for a tablet and wrote, ‘John is his name,’ and all were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened, his tongue freed, and he spoke blessing God.”—Luke 1: 63-64
Zechariah’s muteness may not have been a punishment doubting the angel Gabriel’s rather outlandish promise that Elizabeth was pregnant. Rather, Zechariah’s muteness could have been a psychosomatic response to trauma. Sometimes it’s called “hysterical muteness.”
In the 1980s in Los Angeles, there was an epidemic of blindness among Cambodian women in their 40s. “Each of these recent immigrants had been a victim of the Khmer Rouge revolution and the violent regime that followed. The women struck with blindness,” scientists reported, “had all lived amidst the horrors of genocide. More specifically, each woman had witnessed the murder of a family member. Four years later, 200 such refugees went blind.”
“The blind are often unable to visualize images in their Mind’s Eye. Hence, they can no longer be plagued by images from traumatic memories,” said a neuroopthalmologist.
Zechariah had dedicated his entire life to God and to the temple. There is no evidence that he had ever had a mystical experience of the presence of God. What a shock it must have been! First, an angel appears to him. Second, the angel in effect tells him that the Messiah is coming. Third, that Zechariah will be the father of the “forerunner,” the reappearance of Elijah. (The fact that Elizabeth is well beyond childbearing years hardly seems to matter.) The fourth and final trauma is that Zechariah is confronted with his own words of doubt after a lifetime of outspoken faithfulness.
He fell silent.
“So now here we stand,” writes theologian Karl Barth, “simultaneously deaf and mute like Zechariah…. In spite of his unbelief, he was still a herald of Advent, one who waited for God.”
“O King of the Gentiles, yea, and desire thereof! O Cornerstone, that makest of two one, come to save us mortals, whom Thou hast made out of the dust of the earth!”
Breathe in. Breathe out. Ad…..vent.