Suddenly at this time of year, you lot all remember my son. John the Baptist, you call him, and I wonder how much you know about him and how he came to be part of our family?
My wife Elizabeth was a descendant of Aaron, so she born into a line of priests, and had a noble past. Even her name was the same as Aaron’s wife, but she had no future because she had no child. For a priest, more than almost anyone else, childlessness was a profound disgrace in our day, people used it to question my vocation, because sons were a sign of God’s favour. They said it was Elizabeth’s fault we had no child, but we knew we were right by God, even if they never trusted us.
Of course, Elizabeth had always wanted a child, but that hope gnawed away each month, as she knew that once again she wasn’t pregnant, and that hope eventually gave way to anxiety, and then to panic as she grew older, and finally was shattered when she had to face the reality that she’d never have a child. Every time I came home from a circumcision, every time there was a family gathering and all their relatives brought the children and grandchildren, every time she – always an aunt but never a mother – cared for a neighbour’s child, the grief must have been there, the product not of a devastating single event like a death but of a slow process of attrition of hope over many years. Very often that is how our hope and faith are undermined, it just creeps up on us.
So, we were plodding along. Not very happy, but making the best of things. One day at the Temple, it was just an ordinary day, and then I drew the lot to offer incense in the sanctuary. That was really special, each priest only got to do that once in their whole life, and that day it was my turn. I was to go into the sanctuary, and offer the incense as a symbol of the offering of the prayers of the people, and an angel appeared, and she told me that my prayer had been heard, and that Elizabeth would bear a son. Well, would you credit it? I wasn’t convinced, after all we’d been there before and it hadn’t happened. So, I said I need a bit more evidence than that, and I was struck dumb!
Come on, God, I thought. Are you having a laugh? I asked for a sign, not a lorry load of signs! Served me right for asking for a sign, didn’t it! And I really copped it when I went home, boy did I have a job explaining to Elizabeth why I wasn’t speaking! She never really believed me, and I got the cold shoulder while she hid in the spare room. Then she found she was pregnant, and she realised I wasn’t making it up. Harry, she said, isn’t it amazing what God has done, I don’t need to feel ashamed anymore.
When the baby came, they all kept waving at me and gesticulating. I don’t know why, because I could still hear even though I couldn’t talk. Anyway, they all said he had to be Harry, after me, and poor Elizabeth was getting really browned off with them because she knew that his name had to be John, so in the end I picked up a tablet, and wrote down that his name is John. After that I could talk again!
For years I’ve wondered why God was silent for so long, why it seemed that God wasn’t answering my prayer. I still don’t really get it, and I’m sure it’s not just me. All I know is that I was faithful, and in the end this seemed to be what God wanted. All I could do was hope, and hope I did. I even ended up singing a song about hope.