“I don’t like you today,” I grumbled as I pushed myself to a sitting position. “Do you laugh at me when you watch me move?” Some might consider that blasphemy, but I liked to think that Yahweh knew me well enough to know otherwise.
A fire raged in my lower back, and moving only made it worse. Days like this, I should surrender to my age and remain in bed, while my wife massaged my aches. But my wife was miles away, and I had an appointment with Yahweh.
Groaning, I pulled myself to my feet and shuffled outside, bracing myself against a wall as I walked. Why was I even here? Why, after decades of obscurity, had I been chosen? Yahweh is not cruel, so he did not choose me just to laugh at me. No, he was choosing to honor my decades of service. I should be grateful, but all I felt was pain.
“Is this how you reward us?” I asked him as I bathed. "Waiting until we are too old to enjoy the honor?": The warm water relaxed my stiff muscles and made moving easier, more or less. My joints still ached, as they did most days anymore, and I reached for my walking stick.
When had I become such an old man? Wasn’t it only yesterday that I was winning footraces among the village youth; being yelled at by the gray-beards as we dodged them in the street? My own beard was gray now, and my step as slow and hesitant as a new baby learning to walk. I stand still when the village boys race by, trusting them to avoid me, using my stick to steady myself. My body trembles with the desire to join their game, but my headover-rules my heart, as it should.
I am no boy, to race madly through the streets. I am as old as the grandfathers, and as feeble. While my heart still has the fire of youth, my body betrays me with its aches and pains, its creaking knees and slower steps. I should retire, I thought, and stay home with my wife. Instead, here I was on rotation at the temple, ignoring the pains of age as I dressed for the most important day of my career.
Not every priest is chosen for this task, and I honestly never thought it would fall to me. Yes, I follow the law, but I also question the law-giver. His commands rule our days, so we should understand them with our deepest selves. This means questioning, and challenging.
It's hard, sometime
s, to challenge the Most High. He is law-giver, creator of all we see and have. How dare I argue with him? Who am I to question him? But he answers my questions, or so it seems to me. Sometimes I hear his words to Job: "Where were you when I started all this?" And I interpret that as him saying it's not time for me to know the answers. Other times, I get a spark of insight, a flash of brilliance that lights a confused shadow and shows me just enough to guide me to the next question. The flashes reassure me; encourage me to keep asking without fear of divine retribution. After all, our own writings tell us that it is Yahweh's glory to hide things and ours to discover them.
The others argue with me - they say it is the King's glory to discover them, but I remind them that Yahweh never meant for kings to rule over us. He was our King -- is our King, no matter what Rome decrees. And today, I will be in his temple, lighting the holy incense.
Why me? I whispered to Yahweh in my mind. Who am I, to be chosen by you for this task? I am no one, just one of many sons of Aaron dedicated to your service. Had this honor fallen years ago, I might have become someone important, but with my failing health and Elizabeth's sorrows, I had considered stepping down. So why now?
I knew there were others better suited for this honor - more respectful of Yahweh's priesthood. You should have seen their faces when the lot fell to me. For that matter, I wish I could have seen my own face. I had long since stopped thinking the lots would ever choose me. The elders would never select an argumentative old man, but apparently Yahweh would.
"Make me your servant, Yahweh," I murmured as I did every morning. "Show me your ways, and set my feet in your paths, that I might not sin against you."
Taking several deep breaths to calm myself, I entered the Temple. It was an easy task to light the incense. The smoke billowed from it, more than incense should produce; and I stepped back coughing slightly, rubbing the sudden tears from my stinging eyes. Had I done something wrong? Was there a fire? But the incense was smoking normally now. The room brightened as the unusual smoke cleared and kept getting brighter, the light stinging my eyes as much as the smoke had. I blinked several times, trying to ease the stinging. The brightness was unbearable, far worse than looking at the noonday sun.
Unable to stand against the light, I fell to my knees and prostrated myself before the altar. "Most High Yahweh," I prayed. "If it is my time to die, I thank you that it is here, in your presence." But I did not die, and the light dimmed, damping its power as I might damp a lamp by covering it. I started to rise and stopped when I realized I was not alone. The light focused itself on the right side of the altar, glowing like flaming gold. I shielded my eyes with my hand, trying to see past the brightness to whatever was there. I knew it was not the Shekinah Glory or I would be dead already, my eyes burned out of their sockets by a chance glimpse of the one true god. But what was it? Not human, certainly, although it looked like a man, if there could be such a thing as a man made of pure light, fire dancing through and around him, covering him like a robe.
I prostrated myself again, swallowing hard to keep from spewing the bile rising in my throat.
Music filled my mind, calming my fear; singing to me of the wonder of creation; the majesty of El Shaddai; the joy in his original garden. A somber note intruded, and I wept for Adam's fall, his expulsion from the paradise our Lord had created for him. My heart ached as I watched Cain slay Abel; saw the flood ravaging the land. My peoples' history flashed before me as the music lifted and swelled; its notes filled with promise of joy and laughter, of the blessings so long denied my wife and me.
The vision faded, leaving me longing for more. I wanted to be back in the music, seeing again the impossible sight of my Elizabeth heavy with child, then holding our newborn son. But the music was over. The man of fire -- an angel, I realized suddenly -- was still there, waiting for my response.
"Can this really be true?" I wondered. "Can Yahweh really intend to provide us a son? We're too old! "
The angel flamed white-hot, although I had said nothing out loud.
"I am Gabriel! I stand in the presence of the Most High, and He sent me to deliver His message. You recognized me as His messenger, and yet you doubt His message? Hear me then. You will have no voice until what I proclaim has come to pass. Yes, your barren wife will conceive, and bear you a son, whom you shall name John. The Most High will fill him with His own presence, even as early as his birth, and you will raise him according to the decrees I now give you."
He continued speaking, giving me instructions, and my scholar's mind absorbed and remembered them, even as I wept in joy. A final blaze of brightness and the room was empty again, save for the altar. Stumbling a little, I left the temple, surprised to see the other priests crowded near the entrance.
"Why were you so long?"
"Could you not see the light out here?" I asked them, but no sound left my throat.