Gabriel watched in fascination as the old man was prepared by others for the task that was set before him. He knew this man was God-fearing, as was his elderly wife, but he also knew that even Zechariah was going to struggle with getting his head around what God was about to do.
Zechariah stretched His aching muscles, his wizened frame shuffling to do these familiar tasks. He never lost the wonder of being able to do this: to enter into the holiest place on earth, and to serve Almighty God and his people; surely this was life’s greatest joy. As every piece of ritual cloth was fixed on him, he began to pray, the humble prayer of thanks, that he, Zechariah, got to do this sacred thing. Even now, in his older years, his body tingled with excitement. As they fastened a rope around him, he smiled, remembering a secret joke he shared with his wife. She always teased him about the rope. ‘Maybe I’ll tell the stewards to cut the rope and leave you there!’ she teased lovingly. Ah Elizabeth, his beautiful, beloved Elizabeth, it was many years since they had spoken of their longing for a child, but Zechariah knew in his heart of hearts that they both still so deeply desired it. He sighed heavily, causing one of the stewards to look up anxiously. Zechariah nodded firmly, he was ready, all the required rituals of purification were complete, everything he wore was clean, physically and ritually, even he had dipped himself seven times into the sacred waters. Gabriel smiled as he perceived the tension in the room. The stewards said nothing but glanced nervously at each another, the one who coiled the long linen rope and carried it behind the shuffling priest wondered would today be the day that the rope was needed.
As Zechariah stood before the heavy curtains that only a few could pass through, he trembled, not in fear, nor even excitement. He had suddenly realised how likely it was that this would be his last time to step beyond the cloth that protected the Holy of Holies . ‘It comes to all sons of Adam’ reflected Gabriel as he noticed the tremble, ‘the moment of realisation that earthen life was ending’. He watched in bubbling anticipation as the old man, full of humble dignity, nodded curtly at the stewards and bowed deeply as he edged forward through the heavy curtain.
Zechariah breathed in deeply, soaking up every single moment, his senses all the keener if it was to be his last visit. It never disappointed him that inside the curtain seemed so ordinary – after all who was he to be able to perceive the presence of God? And yet as he looked around the familiar places, the incense, the everlasting flame, he knew something was different. He could sense it, he could feel it… and were his ageing eyes deceiving him, could he actually see something? He resisted the temptation to tug twice on the rope, a signal that he was unwell and needed to be brought out. No, whatever happened, nothing would shorten this visit!
He jumped back in surprise when he saw the messenger, tall, thin, shimmering . His face alight with love and joy. Don’t be afraid Zechariah, God has heard your secret prayers, long whispered in silence, hidden from all save your beloved Elizabeth. She will fulfil your deepest desire and bear a son, you will call him John. You will both shed tears of great joy, and everyone will celebrate this birth with wonder and gladness, for he will be set apart for God. No alcohol will touch his lips, no distractions will fill his soul, he will be dedicated completely to Almighty God who gifts you and Elizabeth this son. Even before he is born God’s spirit and presence will fill him, he will be a beacon for many as he directs them back to God, he will prepare the people for the coming of the Lord.
‘The coming of the Lord’, whispered Zechariah, awe and wonder filling him, but how… why… surely… All sorts of questions bubbled up into his ageing mind. Could it be? After all these years? ‘My wife… my wife and I are frail and aged’ he gasped ‘How can I be sure this is true?’
Gabriel seeing the first hint of doubt that would allow Lucifer into this sacred place, stood to his full height, dwarfing Zechariah who seemed to be sinking into himself, ‘I am Gabriel, Messenger of God, Herald of the Most High. I stand in the very presence and place of God. He has sent me to bring you this great news. Why do you doubt why seek a sign? This will be your sign, you will be silent, no words may pass your lips until what I have spoken has been fulfilled.’ Zechariah fell to his knees, struck dumb, as the steward outside tugged sharply on the rope, checking was he okay did he need to be dragged from the presence of God – Absolutely not, thought Zechariah as he ran outside feeling stronger than he had for years.