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Who said it first?

Who said it first?

Sometimes on Sunday mornings in the Cathedral, during the sermon slot, I catch myself thinking about what I might have said if I were up there in that pulpit. It might have been something the preacher said which sparked my train of thought. More often, it’s something I noticed in the readings. This Sunday, I found it very hard to distinguish the preacher’s words, so I went back to a phrase I noticed in the Gospel reading. First, though, here are both readings in full.

“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’ A voice says, ‘Cry out!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever. Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’ See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” (Isaiah 40.1-11; NRSV)

“Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbours and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, ‘No; he is to be called John.’ They said to her, ‘None of your relatives has this name.’ Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing-tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbours, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, ‘What then will this child become?’ For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him. The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.” (Luke 1.57-66,80; NRSV)

The phrase I noticed was “his mother said” (v60). Elizabeth’s neighbours and relatives arrive to circumcise her child. They, that is presumably the men among them, discuss it among themselves and decide on a name. But Elizabeth cuts across them all: “his mother said, ‘No; he is to be called John.’ “

I’d never noticed that before. I’d never noticed that she’d even spoken here. My memory may well be faulty, but I don’t remember hearing any preacher on this well-known passage ever mention that she had spoken. And from what I could make out, I don’t think Sunday morning’s preacher mentioned it either.

Elizabeth is clear and firm. But of course the neighbours and relatives don’t listen to her. She is only the mother. What follows is the bit of pantomime I usually notice in the reading: they motion to the child’s father as though he were deaf rather than dumb (v62). When he writes “His name is John.” they are all amazed (v63). Why? Not because his tongue had been freed. That comes next. Is it only because it is very unusual to choose a name not in the family? Or because he himself writes, and doesn’t use a scribe? Or because he is following the lead of his wife Elizabeth?

Earlier in the story, Luke tells us of the angel’s announcement to Zechariah: “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John.” (v13). Zechariah is the first to hear, but his response is not to believe the angel’s words: “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” (v18). So the angel speaks again: “you will become mute, unable to speak.” (v20).

The beginning of the angel’s judgement is interesting: “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.” (v19). Gabriel is God’s messenger – the literal meaning of angel – and is God’s voice. Zechariah does not believe God’s voice, so God takes his own voice from him “until the day these things occur.” (v20).

When Zechariah’s time of service in the Temple ends, he goes home. Luke does not tell us that the angel visits Elizabeth also. Hopefully Zechariah passes on the message via a tablet, so Elizabeth is prepared when she conceives. She still has a voice, and she uses it: “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favourably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” (v25). Note the things she has to endure from her people!

She still has a voice, but she stays in seclusion for five months. Her pregnancy is hidden from most of her neighbours and relatives until she gives birth safely. While Zechariah is seen but not heard, Elizabeth is heard but not seen. Her voice is for herself alone.

…Until in Elizabeth’s sixth month, Mary turns up in her house, and at the sound of Mary’s greeting, the child in Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy. Then Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and her voice becomes the voice that generations have echoed over two thousand years: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” (v42).

Just as John in Elizabeth’s womb recognises Jesus in Mary’s womb, and responds with a leap for joy, so Elizabeth recognises the significance of that leap, and responds with a loud cry. She recognises the significance of Jesus, and of Mary as “the mother of my Lord” and “she who believed” (v43,v45).

Then Mary also raises her voice in the great hymn of the Magnificat (vv46-55). God turns the world upside-down as she sings: the mighty are brought down, the poor are lifted up, the hungry filled with good things, and the rich emptied. The authorities are struck dumb, and the hidden discover their voices.

At the beginning of the story, Luke has introduced both Zechariah and Elizabeth: “Zechariah… belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.” (v5). Because Abijah was also descended from Aaron (1 Chronicles 24.1-19), they had him as a common ancestor.

Exodus 4 describes how Aaron became the voice of Moses and the voice of God. It’s a digression, but it’s a story that resonates with the Gospel:

“Moses said to the Lord, ‘O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.’ Then the Lord said to him, ‘Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak.’ But he said, ‘O my Lord, please send someone else.’ Then the anger of the Lord was kindled against Moses and he said, ‘What of your brother Aaron the Levite? I know that he can speak fluently; even now he is coming out to meet you, and when he sees you his heart will be glad. You shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth; and I will be with your mouth and with his mouth, and will teach you what you shall do. He indeed shall speak for you to the people; he shall serve as a mouth for you, and you shall serve as God for him.” (Exodus 4.10-16; NRSV)

As descendants of Aaron, both mortals given speech by God, both Elizabeth and Zechariah should have a voice. As the male descendant, though, it is Zechariah’s voice that is recognised by the ruling classes. But then God mutes Zechariah. So it is Elizabeth’s voice that names John, and it is Elizabeth’s voice that is passed on to her son. John takes after his mother, not his father.

Elizabeth is the one that cries out with Mary, and John’s is the voice that cries out (see Isaiah 40.3). John recognises Jesus in the womb, and Elizabeth recognises Jesus and Mary. Elizabeth is hidden in seclusion until her time comes, and John is hidden “in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.” (v80).

So no, John is not named Zechariah after his father, but as “his mother said”.

Has much changed since then? You probably know this classic Punch cartoon by Riana Duncan: “That’s an excellent suggestion, Miss Triggs. Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it.”

It is known as hepeating, and sits alongside mansplaining, manterrupting and manspreading in the pantheon of sexist behaviour.

Elizabeth experienced it after giving birth, Mary Magdalene experienced it after the Resurrection (see Luke 24.1-12), and it is still going strong today.

And the application for my imaginary listeners, or you my readers? In a nutshell… Men, just stop it. If you see a woman’s suggestion being ignored or hepeated, you may back her up but clearly give her the credit. And women, in the meantime I suggest that you make use of amplification: “commit to having each other’s backs… [so that when] a woman makes an important point or suggestion in a meeting, but that point is either ignored or immediately shot down, other women at the table repeat the first woman’s idea, giving clear support and credit to its source.”

Like Elizabeth and Mary raising their voices together:

And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women’ (v42)

And Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord… for the Mighty One has done great things for me’ (v46)

PS. In case you were wondering, John means “YAHWEH is gracious”; Elizabeth means “my God is an oath”; and Zechariah means “YAHWEH remembers”.