Advent Week 2: Dark Places and Angelic Visitors

The Angel Appearing to Zacharias, William Blake, 1799. From The Met Museum

The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”
(Luke 1:20, NRSV)

One of the things that strikes me about the story of Zechariah’s encounter with Gabriel is how closely it mirrors the resurrection story. At one end of the gospel you have Zechariah going into the darkness of the Holy of Holies, carrying the incense offering. He becomes aware that someone is in the darkness with him, and the angel tells him his wife, Elizabeth, will conceive and give birth to John, who will prepare the way for the messiah. But Zechariah leaves mute, unable to talk about this good news.

At the other end of the gospel you have a group of women going into the darkness of the tomb, carrying incense and burial spices. They become aware someone is in the darkness with them, and angels tell them the good news of Jesus’s resurrection. They leave with instructions to spread the good news and they talk freely. But even though they can talk, they are not believed (Luke 24).

These stories bookend Luke’s gospel. They say something about women and men, gender roles and role reversal, authority and the coming kingdom. They both involve visitation from angels, belief and unbelief, speaking and remaining silent. But among many lessons we can draw from these parallel stories, I think they both indicate that we have to be willing to enter into the cloud of thick darkness (Psalm 97:2), where God’s creative power dwells in the Holy of Holies or in the tomb, to encounter life-changing good news.

As a preacher, in this season of Advent, in this bleak time of ecological and political anxiety, I look for the message of angels. I step into the darkness with my incense, and I wonder: will I believe the Christmas message? Will I be able to speak of it with others?

Prayer: You Who Dwell in Cloud and Thick Darkness, when light is scarce, let us walk by faith and not by sight. We know you do your most wonderful works in the darkness. Amen.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr.