This morning in devotions I was reading what little we know of Zechariah, father of John the Baptist. He was a devout man in his own right, one who served the Lord through upright living in his community, whose wife Elizabeth did the same. Beyond that he served as a priest, and even served in the Temple when it stood. Many of you know already: as he served in the Temple offering incense, the angel Gabriel came to him and told him that he would be the father of a great prophet, who must be named John.
All that we know about Zechariah to that point, we know without having heard a word from him. The first time we have his words, they are words of doubt, or skepticism, or possibly frustration that his long-offered prayer for a child had not been answered before. And so when greeted with the sight of an archangel and the news of a blessing, his words proclaim his doubt. In return, Gabriel gives him food for thought -- and then declares that Zechariah will be unable to speak until the prophecy of John's birth is fulfilled.
I have no idea what it would be like for an adult member of society to be unable to speak for at least 9 months. But he had a long time to think about what he had said, and the promise that he would be able to speak again. He had time to think what the right reaction to Gabriel's news would have been, time to consider better words. And the next time he spoke -- after the birth of his son -- his words were of such power and beauty that we still recite them today.
There are religious groups that practice a vow of silence at certain times. I wonder if there are people who go months without ever having said anything except praise. Situation permitting, I find it admirable. There is a certain beauty in the right kind of silence, the kind that waits and plans the right time and place for words, the kind that considers well what words should be said. The next time Zechariah opened his mouth, he had a second chance at what he should have said when he heard the good news; he began by blessing the Lord.