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The Rev. Dr. Scott Black Johnston The Rev. Dr. Scott Black Johnston

The Rev. Dr. Scott Black Johnston is senior pastor of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York, NY.

Member of:

Presbyterian Church (USA)

Representative of:

Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, New York, NY


Head of Household?

Luke 1:5-63

Third Sunday of Advent - Year C

December 17, 2006

In the ninth grade the school that I attended in rural Minnesota required that all students take an American government class. Theoretically, this class was designed to hone a young citizen's ability to engage current events in a responsible way. Each week we would be split into teams to debate the pros and cons of some contemporary topic. One question we were asked to consider-probably because it was 1979 and Margaret Thatcher had just been appointed Prime Minister in the U.K.-was whether we expected (during our lifetimes) to see a woman become President of the United States.

As I remember it, the affirmative team argued that the progressive march of history was on their side. After all, it was a documentable fact that women were occupying more and more leadership positions in the business world and in government every day. It was, they argued, only a matter of time. The negative team stated that (while the Constitution did permit it) they had serious doubts as to whether Americans would ever be open to the possibility of a woman's being president. Why not? Well, you can imagine the argument. Phrases like "too emotional" and "not tough enough" were tossed about with brutish ease. Then one young fellow, emboldened by his peers, leaned into the table and said, "Yah, and what if she would get pregnant? Can you imagine that, a pregnant president?" Then he shrugged as if that question alone were enough to end all discussion. And in a way it did, for seconds later the debate was abandoned, as a ringing bell sent us scrambling for the hallways, with that guy's challenge echoing in our ears, "Can you imagine that, a pregnant president?"

Luke begins his gospel by telling the story of a married couple, Zechariah and Elizabeth. Zechariah is a clergyman, and Elizabeth is a descendant of the Hebrew people's first high priest, Aaron. This couple had religious connections, although, Luke tells us, what set Elizabeth and Zechariah apart was not their distinguished associations but their solid ethics. They were righteous people-blameless folks. Oh, and one more thing, writes Luke, like other many couples whose stories appear in the Hebrew Scriptures, these two good people had no children. They had prayed fervently for a child, but the months and years went by without a pregnancy-without a baby-and now they were getting old; they were past the age when prayers for a child seemed sensible; they had aged to the point where hoping for a baby was no longer prudent. I suspect that over time Elizabeth and Zechariah made their peace with this fate.

Then came the event that would change everything. Zechariah received an honor. The aging priest was chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary of the temple in Jerusalem to burn incense. This was a big deal. Some priests would spend a lifetime of service, never to draw the specially marked stone from the jar, never to be so fortunate as to enter that portion of the temple where God was thought to reside. This was a very big deal. It was a bit scary, too, for around this ritual were ancient, frightening tales that warned of incense offerings gone horribly awry-one story in particular (passed down, no doubt, by Elizabeth's family) described how two of Aaron's sons were consumed by fire while on duty as priests bearing incense to God (see: Leviticus 10: 1-2). The message behind such anecdotes was clear: If you were to waltz into the sanctuary with an unclean heart, the divine holiness could fry you to a crisp. With stories like that being whispered among his fellow priests, I imagine that Zechariah entered the temple with as spotless a spirit as he could muster. And yet, even a healthy piety had not prepared him for what he would encounter in the sanctuary, for, as Zechariah approached the altar to ignite his fragrant herbs under the very nose of God, an angel appeared, and the priest was suddenly, utterly terrified. He was gripped by fear. You might even say that Zechariah was hysterical.

Today we tend to use the word "hysterical" to describe something extremely humorous, as in, "Comedian Robin Williams was hysterically funny last night on the Late Show." Of course, the term is not limited to expressions of the comical. Webster's dictionary also defines the word "hysterical" as "an uncontrollable emotional outburst as from fear." Either of these uses of "hysterical" is acceptable English. Neither of these uses of the word hints at its rather sordid history. The root of "hysterical" is hystera-the Greek word for "womb." You might recognize it in our surgical term, "hysterectomy." So, what does being hysterical have to do with a womb?
The answer lies in the pages of Greek philosophy. Sadly, Plato and Aristotle had a less than stellar record when it came to enlightened understandings of the sexes. For example, at the heart of Plato's work was his contention that emotional responses to the world were faulty reactions. The goal of philosophy (and indeed, of society itself) was to help men cultivate their powers of pure reason so as to be freed from the shackles of raw, undisciplined emotion. While this pursuit of reason was the ultimate goal for a man, Plato argued that it was an impossible quest for a woman, for, according to the author of The Republic, women were at their core emotional creatures. Then, demonstrating that his medical knowledge was as shallow as his chauvinism was deep, Plato and other philosophers argued that a woman's womb was the seat of her irrationality. They claimed that from time to time a woman's womb would actually uproot itself and travel around inside her body. When a womb began migrating about a woman's body, the philosophers believed it led to general emotional upset. Hence, a diagnosis of "hysteria," literally, "of the womb."

Facing the hysterical Zechariah, the angel Gabriel first tells the priest to be calm. Then he explains that Zechariah's prayer has been answered, that the priest's wife, Elizabeth, will conceive, that they will have a son whom they will name "John." He will be a prophet, and, says Gabriel, he will turn the hearts of people to their children. Trying to get a handle on this extraordinary moment, reaching for a rational response to the angel's announcement, Zechariah points out that both he and his wife are getting on in years, and he asks for a sign that this thing will happen. Gabriel's reply to the unbelieving priest is a classic. You want a sign? You, a priest who should know the stories, who should remember Sarah and Hannah, who should recall all of the times that God has assisted couples beyond hope in conceiving. You want a sign? You are standing in the sanctuary of God. Terrified. Your knees are quaking. You are speaking with an angel who dwells in the presence of the Holy One. And you want a sign? Well, how about this? Here's your sign: You will be mute, silent, until all of this comes true. So it is that Luke's Gospel begins with the story of a righteous man, a priest even, who has been muted by an ambassador from God.

Indeed, men are strangely quiet in Luke's first chapter. Zechariah is silenced. Joseph says nothing at all. What is the gospel writer up to here? In the hush, our gaze is drawn toward two women-cousins who rush to greet each other, females with wombs filled by miraculous cavorting babies, and spirits set afire by the living God. Pure hysteria. I imagine that Plato would have cringed at the rampant emotionalism of it all. And it's just getting started, for after the raucous reunion, after the cousins bump their rounded tummies, the women start to prophesy. They start to talk about how the world ought to be. They make claims about what God wants of us. Their talk is full of typical irrational stuff: you know, tyrants being thrown down; hungry people getting food. They protest social inequalities. They speak of a new order. "Can you imagine that," the ninth-grader quipped, "a pregnant president?" Oh yes, says Luke, and I'll go you one better. Can you imagine a pregnant prophet? And then, just in case we're a bit slow, he pictures two of them for us.

That is the gospel that Luke has for us this Advent. Sure, his writing tweaks classic notions of rationality, but more than that, Luke wants us to catch sight of a vision for this world sketched by pregnant prophets. It is ironic really, terribly ironic, that we have become so stuck in a funny understanding of reason that we would immediately think that a pregnant president would be a bad idea; for I know of no one who has higher expectations for the future of our planet, who is fiercer in wanting to protect the vulnerable, who is more heroically hopeful about the world, than those who are pregnant. The hearts of parents, says the angel Gabriel, will be turned toward their children.

It reminds me of a radio interview that I heard with Tracy Della Vecchia shortly after Saddam Hussein was captured in Iraq. Tracy is the founder of the website "Marine Moms." Her son Derrick is a marine who has done a number of tours in Iraq. When asked what the capture of Saddam Hussein meant to her, Tracy responded without bravado, without arrogance, without the jingoism that so often characterizes these days, but with a simple wish: "I hope that it means that my son can come home soon." The hearts of parents, says the angel Gabriel, will be turned toward their children.

Don't you just love the end of this text? Neighbors arrive at Elizabeth's house to circumcise the baby and name him. They decide to call him "Zechariah" after his father. Quickly, the child's mother intercedes. "No," says Elizabeth, "he is to be named John." The crowd protests. "John? That makes no sense, you irrational woman, no one in your family is named John." Frustrated, they turn to mute Zechariah. The silent priest motions for a tablet. And then, I like to imagine, he looks at his wife, and he looks at the miraculous child that has come forth from her womb, and he writes without hesitation, "His name is John." And all were amazed.

Maybe, after all, there is hope for those of us who belong to the weaker sex. Food for the hungry, sings Mary, love for the lowly. Can you hear the pregnant prophets' voices? Are you dreaming of a hysterical Christmas?

Let us pray.
Gracious God, break into our lives this Advent with angels and prophesy. Give us hope for this messed up world; give us courage for our difficult lives; gift us with laughter and love (hysteria) as we rush this week toward the manger.

In Christ's name we pray. Amen.


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