Reflections on Zechariah

Advent is a wonderful time to read the writings of the prophets. Those chosen men, frail human instruments of God, kept their hearts stretched out in expectation, even amidst woes, tears, and lament. Their provocative imagery opens up a vast horizon of Hope. Led by the Holy Spirit, they allowed the depths of their human imagination and emotion to be tapped as they plied their pen to describe God’s desire to come and save us. Many times they offer promises of his salvation that will somehow simultaneously bring a fiery intensity AND a tender gentleness. Justice and Mercy. Love and Truth.

This Advent my heart has been captivated by the final four chapters of Zechariah, which are apocalyptic in nature. Unfortunately, “apocalyptic” tends to mean “easily hijacked.” The final book of the Bible, the Apocalypse (a.k.a. “Revelation”) is the most frequently butchered book, plundered by misguided Christians as they sound alarm bells about the end of the world and claim to have all the answers. Never mind that Jesus told us clearly that no one except the Father knows when the end will actually come (Matthew 24:36), and that we ought not chase after these messianic alarmists (Mark 13:21).

Those who read apocalyptic writings in a way that is unduly fascinated with foretelling the future are largely missing the point. Whether the Book of Revelation or certain passages in Daniel or Zechariah, the apocalyptic writings in Scripture have genuine meaning and relevance for all who read the text – including the original audience; including the many millions of men and women who never saw the second coming of Jesus; including you and me.

“Apocalypse” literally means “unveiling.” The prophetic promises point to an ultimate unveiling that is “already but not yet.” We are meant to enjoy a true taste of them here and now, yet always with a sense that more is yet to come, and we are not yet ready for the fullness.

The coming realities, sharing as they do in God’s infinity, necessarily elude the full comprehension of our present finite experience. It reminds me of a famous episode of The Twilight Zone in which a little girl in her bed somehow stumbles through the wall into a fourth dimension, and her family frantically seeks to rescue her. Her limited human mind cannot process the newness of a fourth dimension. It is overwhelming and disorienting.

As great as human logic is, it can only bring us so far. Every wise theologian has understood this point. Thomas Aquinas described doctrinal propositions as tending towards the Truth, and reminded us that our Faith is not directed towards the propositions of our creed, but rather towards the Truth itself that is pointed to in those statements. God’s Truth radically transcends our expressions of it. Towards the end of Thomas’ earthly life, he had a deep mystical experience of God, after which he expressed that all the allegedly wise words he had written now seemed to him “like so much straw” in comparison to the glory he had glimpsed.

With that “already but not yet” perspective in mind, we can allow the powerful imagery of the prophet Zechariah to captivate our hearts and minds, to speak to our experience and pour blessings upon us here and now, while opening our hearts in Hope, reaching out receptively to the greater realities yet to come.

Zechariah paints a picture of lament and loss. He describes the trees grieving over the felling of many mighty and beautiful cedars, cypresses, and oaks. He describes the weeping of the shepherds over the loss of their glory, the betrayal wrought by shepherds forsaking their flock, and the confusion and woes of a flock that goes unshepherded. As a result, Zechariah foretells that two thirds of the people will fall away. The one third that remains will pass through fire like silver and gold that is tested.

Got your attention yet? To me, it is as though he is describing our present-day experience in the Church. But the point is not to be alarmist about the end of the world. Instead, we can allow the imagery to disrupt us in a way that opens up space for Hope, which is by far the deeper message of these chapters. Hope is also the reason why we read from the prophets every Advent. Again, let us remember that these words of Scripture speak to believers in all centuries, not merely our own. The point is to let them speak to us!

Zechariah proceeds to describe all the nations of the world rising up against God’s people and fighting Jerusalem. Even Judah will rise up against Jerusalem. But they will only injure themselves, like those who try to move an immovable rock. God will fight those who fight her.

Amidst these scenes of strife and loss, Zechariah offers vivid images of Hope, ones that connect closely with Jesus in John’s Gospel and with John’s promises in the Book of Revelation. Zechariah promises a fountain welling up within the house of David. Fresh water will flow from Jerusalem, during both summer and winter, to the East and the West. There will be no more darkness or cold, but only the Day. He promises the restoration of Jerusalem and the inclusion of all the survivors of these great trials – both the Jews and the Gentiles who had rebelled against Jerusalem but now repent. Cleansed by the fountain, they will gather year after year to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles, bowing down to the King, the Lord of Hosts. On that day, each household in their own tent will find their cooking pot to be sacred to the Lord. No longer shall the Temple be a marketplace, in which people attempt to purchase holiness. Each and every vessel will receive and be filled as from the altar itself; each household will be truly holy to the Lord of Hosts.

A marketplace no more. Intellectually we understand that God’s holiness cannot be bought, and that no amount of magic or manipulation can bend Him to our will. Yet we still try. One way or another, our prayers tend to be varied attempts at praying, “My will be done!” – or more subtly, “This is what you have to do for me, God.” Much more elusive to us is the experience of freely receiving, gently abiding, and humbly depending. We have a tendency to keep grasping at a God we can control and bend to our will. Idolatry dies hard.

Jesus breaks into our brokenness with a newness that flips our paradigms upside down. John’s writings illustrate this point powerfully with the image of “tabernacles” (tents). John begins his Gospel telling us that Jesus, the Eternal Word of God, became flesh and made his dwelling among us. Literally, he pitched his tent in our midst. In the Old Testament, autumn after autumn, God’s people celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles by bringing their harvest fruits to the Temple and constructing their tents around the Temple.

In John 7 and Revelation 7, this imagery is flipped around, in a way that evokes Zechariah’s promises. Jesus goes up to Jerusalem during the Feast of Tabernacles and proclaims, “Whoever believes in me, as Scripture says: ‘Rivers of living water will flow from within him.’ He said this in reference to the Spirit that those who came to believe in him were to receive.” Revelation 7 describes a living fountain issuing forth from the Lamb once slain, and an endless Day shining forth from the Temple. The white-robed army that has endured the time of trial will be sheltered (“tented”) by God himself, day and night. Revelation 21 re-echoes that God will dwell (“tent”) with his people day and night, and will wipe every tear away.

Our tendency from the Fall until now is one of pride and self-protection. Adam and Eve tried to hide from God and cover their nakedness. We, their descendants, spend much of our lives constructing our own versions of holiness and try to become good enough so that God has to give us what we want.

Mercifully, God allows our false props to be stripped away – yes, even by means of harsh trials. They are of our own making – not his – but he turns all things to the good for his beloved children. To those not yet ready to receive and abide and depend, it feels terrifying and seems like punishment – much like the imagery at the end of Zechariah. It is then we can take great assurance in the Hope he promises: “The city will be inhabited; never again will it be doomed. Jerusalem will dwell securely” (Zechariah 14:11). When we remember that the living fountain of the Holy Spirit is always there within our hearts, that the light of the Risen Christ shines brightly, and that the Father himself will extend his shelter over us, then we can begin to take him up on his invitation to abide in his presence in Hope.

A Most Memorable Homily

**DISCLAIMER – If you do not enjoy a little earthy humor, then this post may not be for you**

Pope Gregory the Great was a legendary preacher. But he gave at least one crappy homily. That is to say, he gave a homily in which dung was a featured metaphor.

How, you might ask, did I stumble upon this homily? Mainly because of my stepdad’s propensity for poop jokes. They weren’t necessarily his favorite form of humor, but they were a solid number two. He certainly struggled with his woundedness, but no one ever denied his sense of humor. Like many dads, he was an old pro at the “pull my finger” bit. But he also had more elaborate jokes. If we had friends over, when they asked to use our bathroom, he would normally encourage them to write their weight on the wall. When they looked at him in confusion and bewilderment, he would explain, “That way if you fall in, we know how much to scoop out.” My sisters didn’t exactly appreciate him saying that to their boyfriends, but I think all of us far preferred his lighthearted and mischievous moods to his angry ones.

When you do doctoral research in theology, you never know what you might find. There I was back in 2010, sifting through various texts of the early Church Fathers, when I noticed Gregory repeatedly using the Latin word stercus (“dung”). Given my crappy upbringing, I definitely did a double take. I couldn’t resist reading the entire homily. It ended up being one of the most remarkable bits of writing that I’ve ever read, beginning with the earthiness of manure and culminating with an intense heavenly yearning (both in Gregory’s preaching and in my own heart).

The homily ponders two images from Luke 13:6-17: the parable of the fruitless fig tree and the healing of the stooped woman. For three years the fig tree has born no fruit, and the master is ready to remove it. The steward begs the master for one more chance. He will dig around the tree. He will take a bucket of dung and fertilize the tree at its roots. Then, if it still bears no fruit, the master can cut it down.

Gregory compares the fruitless fig tree to our fallen human nature. The works of the flesh leave us fruitless. We are in need of conversion and repentance. We need to become detached and free from our sins – not merely in the moment of acting out, but going down to the roots of our pride.

How does the dung come in? As Gregory explains, “What is the bucket of dung but the mindfulness of our sins?” Remembering the stench of our sins while simultaneously stretching out in works of charity, we grow and bear fruit.

Gregory describes this mindfulness of our sins as “compunction” – a virtue rarely talked about in these decades of promoting positive self-esteem. While I fully acknowledge the damage done by low self-esteem, self-loathing, or shame, I am also convinced of the wisdom of Gregory on this point. Compunction is a humble awareness of our sinfulness and our total dependence on God.  We will never bear fruit without Him.

There is definitely a difference between compunction and shame.

Compunction involves true humility, leading us to rise above our sins and failures and reach out to heavenly truth. Shame, by contrast, is a sort of upside-down version of pride. We prefer denial or minimizing because, deep down, we know that some of our behaviors really stink. We are afraid that other people, if allowed too close to the stench, will stop loving us.

Compunction leads us to have deep compassion towards others, overcoming any anger or judgment we initially feel towards them. If we ourselves stand in so much need of mercy, how can we be hard on others? Shame, meanwhile, can lead to a festering fear, anger, and self-protection. In my stepfather’s case, I am convinced that much of his anger was the only way he knew to protect himself from the painful shame that he felt. He was terrified that none of us would love him if we knew the real him. So when he felt his shame most deeply, he raged the most violently. There are others who see their anger and rage as unacceptable emotions. So they turn instead to self-righteousness, judgment, or passive aggression. Both kinds of anger (active and passive) can cover over our fear and shame, rather than facing them truthfully. Both can become toxic and destructive in their own way.

Compunction is truth-telling about ourselves, whereas shame is laden with lies. Compunction refuses to deny or rationalize or minimize the ugliness of our sins. We have sinned; we have harmed relationships with God and others and self; and we “take full responsibility” – not by saying those words as a cliché but by actually confessing our sins, asking for help from God and others, and sincerely surrendering ourselves to radical change.

Literally, “compunction” denotes poking with a stick. In this case, a stinky stick. Any time we find ourselves puffing up with a false inflation of our ego, we have the memory of our sins to burst our bubble and keep us grounded in true humility. But this only works if it goes hand-in-hand with an unshakable confidence in God’s Fatherhood. We can we become “firmly rooted in love” (Ephesians 3:17), fertilized and nourished by an authentic compunction and humility. It is then that the real growth in Christ begins.

How on earth does this relate to the story of the stooped woman? I’ll finish that thought next time.

NOTE: This remarkable homily of Gregory the Great was given on June 10, 591. If you are a Patristic nerd, you can find the original Latin text in SC 522: 252-266 or PL 76, 1227-1232. If you don’t read Latin, there is an English translation in this book.