A New Year is again before us to live a life in all its fullness. However, being human we will be forced to ask the question “How can this be?” off and on in our life ahead. We have raised this question in our life many a time in the past and we will continue to ask the same question as we move on in life. When surprises happen in life, things which bring joy and happiness; when shocks come in life, things which dampen our spirits, which take away the very purpose of living from us; when ambiguities govern our life, when things are not clear in crisis situations; when uncertainties are encountered not knowing which way to turn to, the question comes up automatically in our minds, “How can this be”?
The above question had been raised by Zechariah, a priest of God. He was faithful to his priesthood despite the fact that he and his wife Elizabeth had a disappointment in their lives that they had no children. They would have been praying for the same for years but in vain. What is significant is, despite the above fact Zechariah which meant “Yahweh remembered” continued his service as a priest doing his duties in the temple. They were also righteous before God and followed all the commandments of God and their lives were blameless. As required of all the priests, Zechariah was serving his course in the temple and it so happened that the lot fell on him to burn incense inside the altar while people were waiting outside as the incense was being burnt. During this moment, an angel of the Lord appeared to Zechariah and told him that his prayer is heard and that his wife Elizabeth will bear a son and that he shall call him John. The angel also briefly described about the unique mission of John that he will prepare the way for the Lord to come. Then Zechariah raises this very significant question “How can this be” especially when he and his wife are old? The angel Gabriel reiterates what will happen and makes Zechariah dumb since he did not believe the words of God through the angel. Zechariah returns to his home after his service in the temple. Elizabeth conceived and hid herself for five months and remarked,” The Lord has done this for me…he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among people”. The above narrative is recorded in Luke 1:5-25.
The question “How can this be”? is theological in nature and content. There are three theological truths which are inherent in this question:
Firstly, it underlies the fact that the extraordinary redemptive work of God is carried out through the ordinary.
After the stately and formal prologue, the reader may be prepared to read a history of kings and generals. The opening words of Vs.5,”in the days of King Herod of Judea” seem to confirm this false expectation. Instead, the story of God’s mighty acts does not involve Herod but a devout old couple. The world’s standards lead us to attribute power and worth to the royal functionary, who was but a puppet of Rome. God chose instead the poor and humble as the venue for the great work of redemption. History would remember Herod only as the king at the time when John the Baptist and Jesus were born. Yet, Herod was not even aware of the events for which he would be remembered. The Church can easily continue to perpetuate the false assumptions that can lead the reader of the opening verses of Luke to false expectations. The old, the poor, the humble, and the insignificant are not to be overlooked; they are God’s chosen people.
Secondly, it reiterates the importance of recovering the vitality of worship and faith.
Even the faithful may grow dull in their worship and faith. Here is a story of a priest who was praying fervently but who was not prepared for his prayers to be answered. He was officiating in the sanctuary itself, but he did not really expect to experience God’s presence. The story challenges us to trust in God expectantly and to be prepared for God’s response to our needs. Many a time, the motions of prayer and worship and the exercise of our faith become a mere routine and tradition we observe. We hardly see God at work in our lives even in the midst of challenges. Our cynical response often echoes Zechariah’s: “How can this be “? Or “How will I know that this is so”? The response as always is to witness what God has done and what God continues to do in our midst. We need to recover the vitality of our worship and faith.
Thirdly, it signifies the importance of God’s Time in God’s scheme of action
Throughout, the opening scene of Luke trumpets the fulfillment of the age. Time is important. The period of waiting is over. God’s time has come. God is about to bring redemption to all who look to God with hope and faith. The story tells of kronos, the years, days and moments of waiting. But ultimately it tells of the kairos, God’s appointed time, the kairos of God’s redemption of Israel and of all people. God’s delays are not God’s denials. God’s time, the kairosis indeed significant. When that message breaks through the shells of our cynicism, we too can join Elizabeth in the joyful exclamation, “This is what the Lord has done for me!”
In the year and time ahead, when we face the question “How can this be”? in varied contexts of life, let us remember that the primary agents of God’s salvific activity are people like us, the ordinary, the poor and the marginalized and not the rich and the powerful; that we need to recover the vitality in our worship and faith so that we discover God at work even in the midst of challenges of life; and above all that we need to wait patiently for the kairos, God’s appointed time to see answers to our prayers. Let cynicism disappear and optimism rule our life and work in the New Year.