Through the smoke of incense, Zechariah could see the long sash from Aaron's robe lying on the floor just outside the veil. From the other side of the thick curtain, he could hear the bells tinkling on the sleeves of the High Priest as he moved about in the Holy of Holies. The voice was that of an old man, muffled in the mist of Zechariah's mind: "Blessed are You, O Etern..." In fear, Zechariah listened again. Nothing! No bells! No voice! His own throat seemed full of cotton as he called the name. "Aaron!" Then, with more urgency: "Aaron!" He bent down, grabbed the long sash and began pulling..."
Covered with perspiration, he sat up in the bed. His night clothes were soaked. The sounds in the courtyard told him that morning was stirring. He smelled a firepot burning outside.
All night, the dream had wafted its way back into his subconscious. He thought of his ancestor, the original High Priest, and how he must have felt when he entered the presence of the Eternal in that wilderness tent of worship. The Almighty gave strict instructions on how to prepare for that occasion. The High Priest had to be washed thoroughly, then dressed in his priestly garments. After the sacrificial goat was killed, he went with blood into the Holy of Holies, the earthly dwelling place of the Eternal. The High Priest entered with a right heart and in sanctified garments. Even then, he might have missed some step. Some flaw, some unconfessed sin might cause the Holy One to strike the High Priest dead. The bells alone announced that the spiritual representative of the people still lived. If they stopped, he was to be removed by dragging him with the long sash that extended outside the veil. For anyone else to go behind that curtain meant death. Even the High Priest went only once a year on the Great Day of Atonement.
Zechariah shuddered again. Today, he would be alone just outside that veil. The glorious power of the Almighty would be that near. "Am I ready?" he thought. The question replayed itself over and over as he joined the other priests on duty for the daily cleansing ceremony.
"Am I ready?" He again pondered the enormity of it as he entered one of the two columns of priests and their somber processional moved into the Hall of Hewn Polished Stones.
Could it be that Elizabeth's failure to conceive was caused by some sin he had committed? Something he had never confessed?
"Am I ready?"
The sacrifice, the cleansing of the Menorah and the preparation of the altar of incense were complete. Zechariah took the pungent incense with him as he walked alone into the Holy Place. His heart beat rapidly as he spread some of incense evenly over the altar. Thoroughly satisfied, he took a flame and began to light the fire. Dark, aromatic smoke rose between him and the veil. It would burn for a long time.
Zechariah paused. On this one day in his life, he was alone just outside the presence of the Almighty. He thought of the faithful whom he had seen praying nearby in the Court of the Women. He watched the cloud of incense, representing the prayers of the people before the Eternal. He felt the sudden urgency to pray the prayer he held in the deepest recesses of his being.
"O Eternal, I confess that I do not understand. I have been given the privilege to burn this incense before You. I have received Your approval to do so as shown by the sacred lot. All my life I have longed for this day. Now that it has arrived, I stand here with a broken heart. O Eternal, please hear my cry! Through the many years of our marriage, my wife Elizabeth has been barren. We have prayed. We have wept and cried out to You. We have sought the help of the physicians. Now, we have been told that it is too late. Please, Eternal, comfort us. We do not understand."
He turned to leave...
To my readers: the events surrounding the birth of Christ are given extensive coverage in Scripture. The parts we don't always know about are the human elements, especially from the viewpoint of Jesus' participants. My attempt this Christmas is to stay true to the Biblical text, while shading in what it may have been like "between the lines." Please distinguish my ruminations from God's Word by reading the first few chapters of Matthew and Luke. My hope is that reading my words impacts you even a tiny percentage as much as writing them has impacted me.