Question: Why is prayer necessary? God knows what we need. He also sees and knows…
Why was Zechariah punished for questioning God, but Mary wasn’t?
Question: There are some inconsistencies in Luke’s Gospel about Zechariah that I don’t understand. In the first place, the angel Gabriel punishes Zechariah by rendering him mute. But later in the Gospel, the people make signs to talk to him as if he were deaf. Where they confused and just thought him deaf as well? Second, I don’t understand why Zechariah was punished when he says almost the same thing as Mary did. Zechariah said, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years” (Lk 1:18); Mary says, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” (Lk 1:34).
— Francis Larson, Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Answer: At first glance there does seem to be a contradiction. The angel Gabriel said merely in Luke 1:20, “But now you will be speechless and unable to talk until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled at their proper time.” But later there is the oddity you note: “So they made signs, asking his father what he wished him to be called” (Lk 1:62). If Zechariah were merely mute but not deaf, he would not need them to use signs.
At least one of the Church Fathers, Theophylact, offers a linguistic explanation and notes that the word in the Greek, kophos, in addition to muteness, may also signify being deaf and mute, and he says Zechariah reasonably suffered these two things. For, as disobedient, he incurs the penalty of deafness; as an objector, of silence. However most Greek manuscripts do not have this word but instead have “lalesai,” which simply means “to be silent.” Even here to be made silent could include the silence of not being able to hear or speak, but most often it is simply understood to be the silence of muteness.
Beyond the debated linguistic explanation, there remains the important reminder that one text or sentence alone does not convey everything. Often the fuller context is needed to understand the details. And thus, while in Luke 1:20, we are told that Zechariah is rendered mute, and Luke 1:62 adds the detail that he was in fact rendered deaf and mute. As such, the texts are not in conflict, but one merely adds more detail that the other left vague. As Theophylact notes, deafness is a suitable punishment, because faith comes by hearing. Thus doubting the faith of God’s word through Gabriel, Zechariah is punished by the temporary loss of hearing. Further that he might not lead others to a lack of faith or to scoffing, he is rendered mute. The first punishment is salutary for him; the second part of the punishment is salutary for the others.
As for Mary’s and Zechariah’s reply being similar, but only Zechariah being punished, we must remember that written texts are tone deaf. Mary’s reply may well have been humble and merely seeking clarification, whereas Zechariah’s tone may well have been more rhetorical, dubious or scoffing. While we don’t know for sure, there must be some internal reason of heart or tone of voice that makes the replies different in essence if not in exact words, since God is not unjust. We can also note that Zechariah doubts about a matter of nature that God has overridden before, when, for example, he enabled Abraham and Sarah to conceive in old age. But Mary wonders due to a vow of virginity she has already rendered to God. Thus she regards God, while Zechariah seemingly doubts God.
Kneeling during the creed?
Question: At Christmas, the priest at our parish directed everyone to kneel during the creed where it says “by the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus was incarnate of the Blessed Virgin Mother.” It was awkward, and kneelers were dropped making loud sounds. Was this right?
— Name withheld
Answer: The priest did the proper thing. At Christmas Mass, as well as on the solemnity of the Annunciation, Catholics are directed to kneel at the words in the creed referring to the incarnation. In the extraordinary form, this is done at every Mass when the “Last Gospel” (John 1) announces that the Word became flesh, and also whenever the creed is proclaimed and the words of the Incarnation are pronounced. The purpose of this gesture is to emphasize the profound mystery that God (who is eternal and infinite) took a human nature and lived among us.