The Christmas Story 7. Gabriel, Zacharias, Elizabeth, and John
December 13, 2016 Leave a comment
Matthew doesn’t tell us anything about John the Baptist’s nativity. John pops onto the scene baptizing. He’s part of the beginnings of Jesus’ ministry. John (the Evangelist) puts him in his Gospel in a very weird way. He writes about Jesus existing before creation and suddenly he inserts the Baptist into the narrative. It’s a powerful part of the message for him and it may have something to do with John the Gospel writer’s attitude toward Judaism.
Theologically it is important to introduce John the Baptist because he is a proxy for Elijah, Elijah must return and reunite the generations, and Luke has him doing that act by proxy in a sense. It’s all very abstractly Mormon. The Evangelists see the Baptist as both a figure of the Old Testament and the New. He is, in Joseph Smith’s terms: ELIAS the forerunner of the LORD, and ELIJAH, uniter of worlds. For Joseph, this was priesthood office and the Baptist filled it, as did Joseph himself. You have to have a restorer. In Joseph’s revelation of 1832 (section 84:27-8) the Baptist was ordained by the angel (perhaps Gabriel?—I mean, it takes one Elias to know one, right?) at eight days.Joseph uses the Greek form (Elias) to distinguish the dual missions of Elijah. The revelation has him overthrowing the kingdom, but this doesn’t happen literally. In the revelation’s view, John takes the kingdom and transfers it to the Messiah—he does this by baptism.
Of course, early Christians don’t betray any knowledge of this. At least, they remain faithful Jews (cf. the end of Luke) until Stephen’s death, Paul’s frustration, and Peter’s revelation stir the pot with radical consequence and the Jews finally ended out as pariahs in a Christian dominated world when fellowship became hatred.
Luke tells us that Zacharias entered the temple to burn incense. The “whole multitude” of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. The temple is a house of prayer. And the language gives us the impression of a people prepared. John (the Baptist) is, in effect, working his magic even before he is born.
And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the alter of incense.
We find that the angel has a name: Gabriel. (Gabriel appears once in the Old Testament, in the book of Daniel, the man of the last times. Gabriel comes and interprets a vision of Daniel’s. It’s obscure stuff.) Luke is doing something important with his narrative. He juxtaposes Abraham, the beginning of Israel, with Daniel, the closing of the Old Testament (and in a sense, the ending of Israel).Luke surrounds the whole of the Law and the Prophets and he follows this pattern with Mary. Gabriel comes to Mary and says: “Don’t be afraid.” Really. The angel says the same thing to the shepherds. “Fear not.” Gabriel calls people by name. Certifying that he really is in the right place speaking to the right person, you may have faith (think Joseph Smith here). Gabriel to Zacherias:
Your prayer is heard, and your wife Elizabeth shall bear a son, and you shall call his name John. And you shall have joy and gladness, and many shall rejoice at his birth.
This is the patriarchal pattern, naming people before they are born. It’s a way of saying that the child has a prepared destiny, a life planned out. “John” means “Yahweh gives grace.” And this predicts the rest of the declaration: joy and gladness, many will rejoice because of John. There are two kinds of deliverance present here. One is the traditional thing from the Old Testament. For much of the Old Testament, there is no evidence of belief in an afterlife. When God declares Adam and Eve will die, that’s it. They will End. It is only near the end of the Old Testament period that an afterlife becomes a more universal notion. (Mormons would offer that Joseph Smith’s revelation suggest that elites had some knowledge of a human preexistence, which as Joseph Smith forcefully argued, guaranteed a post-existence. But this was not the picture historically. Often Latter-day Saints confuse things like the temple as historical—from its beginnings in Nauvoo it was seen as a symbolic summation—reading the future into the mythological past and in some ways, vice versa.)
How then can one live on, if there is no afterlife? Through children. Any knowledgeable Jew (or Mormon) could answer the question, what is the first commandment of God? It is to multiply. In that sense there is continuity, and whether one believes in an afterlife of not, this is still true. The commandment anticipates the disobedience. For a woman to die childless in such a mindset was a terrible loss. God responds to the yearning of Elizabeth. She’s going to get pregnant. And of course, she does. It’s blushingly literal. As Matthew tells the story of Joseph, a just and observant man, Luke has Zacharias and Elizabeth, just, priestly, observant people who are blessed with great joy. Luke does not explain the whole world here. It’s God’s act and intervention and it just is.
With Mary the situation is distressingly different. She is a young woman, not married though betrothed, not expecting or praying for anything like this, not NOW. But Gabriel turns up and tells her she’s going to have a child and it’s not going to be Joseph’s. She hasn’t wished or dreamed of anything like this. It mirrors in a way the shocking “grace” of Gethsemane—it is Unexpected, even painful. There are two kinds of grace: prayed for, yearned for—and the shockingly unexpected, unwished for, perhaps even with implied danger, etc.
Gabriel goes on: John will be great before the LORD, he shall drink no wine or strong drink (like Samson and Samuel, Nazarites set aside for the LORD from birth, they don’t live ordinary lives). Jesus describes John through the words of others: he’s an ascetic, he is in some ways a kind of monk, self-disciplined for religious reasons. Luke may be puffing his story here by adding in what he knows about John from the Jesus tradition he has before him. Like Jeremiah, John is set apart from his mother’s womb. As Luke puts it, John is filled with the Holy Ghost even inside the womb (see above). John will go before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just.
Zacharias whispers: “how shall I know this?” God can do anything, is the answer. And Gabriel makes him mute. This is repetition. Gabriel did the same thing to Daniel. It’s the end of things as it were—the end of a world. When the prediction comes to pass, Zacharias can speak again—it’s a new world. The people at the baby’s circumcision ask Zacharias about the name of the child, and he signs “John.” He’s released from his prison of silence. “And fear came on all,” the neighbors know there is something to do with God here. It’s frightening, and rumors spread. When Zacharias exits the temple after his interview with the angel he’s supposed to bless the people, but he can’t do it—he can’t speak. Luke doesn’t forget this, because at the end of his Gospel, Jesus blesses the disciples and they go back to the temple. Everything is fulfilled.
There’s one more thing about naming John that Luke rather subtly inserts into the story. Elizabeth knows the name of the child before Zacharias signs the name. It seems that Luke wants us to see that there were TWO revelations, one to Elizabeth, one to Zacharias. Read the account, and see what you think.
As hinted at above, Joseph Smith’s revelation (Doctrine and Covenants section 27) introduces Gabriel as (an) Elias too, as forerunner (see the next post), and this is a key part of Mormon angelology: Gabriel was once a human being—Noah. All angels once were, are now, or will be, mortal humans. This is a very different view from the Old Testament, where beings from heaven can procreate with human women, but what other ways they link with humanity is unclear. The Angel of the LORD for Moses is God himself. The apocryphal literature exposes a more varied angelology (I’ve mentioned it a bit). It’s a curious business, but beyond the scope of this post.
Next time: more Luke.
 The theological place of John the Baptist is one of Joseph Smith’s favorite sermon topics, which he uses to debate various positions of the day. Search here if you wish. On Elias, Elijah and the splitting of identies for Joseph Smith, see Samuel M. Brown, “The Prophet Elias Puzzle,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 39, no. 3 (Fall 2006): 1-17. I say something about the evils of Christian hatred elsewhere in the series.
 Benjamin Park, “A Uniformity so Complete: Early Mormon Angelology,” Intermountain West Journal of Religious Studies 2 (2010): 1-37. I think it’s clear that Joseph was familiar with the Apocrypha (and see Doctrine and Covenants 91).