Angel Encounters: Zechariah vs. Mary

The first two players in Luke’s gospel—Zechariah and Mary—are a study in contrasts. Let’s start with the obvious: Zechariah was an old man and Mary was a young woman. It’s hard to overstate the significance of gender roles in the ancient world. Men have had always many more privileges than women—political power, social standing, education, vocational opportunities, financial options, and security.

Zechariah was an established temple priest, a religious professional. Mary was a nobody. The only word in the story used to describe Mary is “virgin.” That rhymes with “inexperienced” and “naive.” Zechariah was grounded in the synagogue school and priestly training. He trafficked in religious activities every day. Mary likely had no formal education. She probably couldn’t read or write even her own name. Mary’s religious activities were different than Zechariah’s, but she had an active and vibrant faith.

Yet all that pales in significance to the most striking contrast between Mary and Zechariah. It stems from opposite responses to a shared experience. The angel Gabriel appeared to each of them and delivered similar messages—they each would produce their first-born son in implausible circumstances.

Zechariah was asked to believe he would have a son with his wife in their old age. That required a miracle. Gabriel’s message to Mary was even more impossible. Mary was asked to believe she would bear her son as a virgin. That required a super-miracle! Yet Mary believed God and humbled herself. Zechariah didn’t believe the angel’s word, at least not at first. What a contrast! Zechariah failed; Mary succeeded. Mary, not Zechariah, is the unlikely hero of faith in an angel encounter.

We may never experience an angel encounter. But we will encounter a faith test. We’ll be asked to believe God in difficult circumstances. We may be asked to believe God in harder ways than other people who seem better qualified. When we face a challenge like that, maybe we are highly favored, as Mary was. May our response be as strong as Mary’s reply to Gabriel, “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.”