It has never made sense to me to see Zechariah’s dumbness as a punishment. Punishment for what? For being amazed, incredulous even, at this most unlikely of angelic announcements? It seems rather unfair. I like Maggi’s interpretation of it as an answer to Zechariah’s request for a sign. But I think it might also be something else.
It’s a silence. A space. A literal silence, but also a space for Zechariah to adjust to this life-changing news. We all need time to think, to process things, to pray. Sometimes that comes in the form of literal silence (though rarely by being struck dumb!), sometimes in a change of rhythm, or a life-giving space. Sometimes it’s a long time, a retreat or pilgrimage, sometimes it’s a snatched half-minute behind the sacristy door (giving away my secrets here!).
But such spaces, such silences, are particularly necessary when our life seems to be changing direction. Time for discernment, for reflection, for adjustment, time to make our peace with God’s plans for us. And it seems to me that is just what Zechariah is given here. And it works – when he speaks again after his long silence, it is in praise of what God has done.
Sometimes we choose to take time out, whether because we want to or think we ought to. Other times the choice is made for us, as it is for Zechariah. I have been suffering from vertigo for the last couple of weeks and at times it has forced me, quite literally, to stop and sit down. I didn’t choose it, any more than Zechariah chose to lose the power of speech (and to be honest I’m very fed up with it now). But it has forced me to slow down at least a little, to pause occasionally in the hectic dash towards Christmas. And perhaps that’s exactly what I needed to help me follow God’s path this Advent, though the means have been very far from what I would have chosen.