It was World War II. Ella’s son was a fighter pilot in the Pacific theater. At home, waiting for him to return, it was hard to keep her mind from worried thoughts. Ella was powerless to protect her son Allen from the war’s violence, so big, so far away. It seemed there was nothing she could do which would make for peace. But there was something she could do to keep her hands busy, something she could do which made her vigil less arduous. Ella began to make quilt tops, focusing her mind in puzzling out patterns, occupying her hands in gathering, cutting, and piecing each part of the puzzle together.
When the war ended, Allen came home, but Ella’s quilting continued, and when she died, it became one of her legacies. She left some completed quilt tops for her children, but others remained to be completed. One of them especially was a mystery: its measurements didn’t make sense, and it came with an odd collection of fabrics and pieces. Ella’s heirs wondered what it was meant it to be. They would sometimes take it out and puzzle over it, then put it away again, not knowing what to do to carry the work forward. Without the memory of her intentions, it seemed this part of Ella’s legacy might be lost.
I imagine Zechariah, the old priest we meet at the beginning of Luke’s gospel, wondered if his legacy would be lost. Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, heirs of Israel’s priestly lineages, had been faithful to the legacy they’d received. They had kept God’s commandments faultlessly. Yet, after long years, they remained childless, a state viewed by their culture as a sign of God’s disfavor.
When we first meet Zechariah, he is on duty at the Temple, having been chosen by lot to enter the Holy of Holies, on behalf of the People of Israel and offer incense. It was a fearful honor; the Holy of Holies was the closest you could get to God on earth, and therefore potentially dangerous. Zechariah performs his duty honorably, but I imagine there is a deep weariness in his soul. He’s not afraid, he’s bored. He doesn’t really expect God will show up.
But God certainly does show up in Zechariah’s story! The people of Israel are outside praying, the incense is swirling, and the angel Gabriel appears. “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, your prayer has been heard. Elizabeth will bear a son, and you will name him John. He will bring you joy and gladness, for he will be great in God’s sight. Filled with the Holy Spirit, he will turn many of Israel’s people back to God, he will go before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah, and make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
But though Zechariah had long prayed for a child, he does not respond with joy at this news. I wonder if the disappointment he’d felt so often over the years had become a habit of doubt. Or maybe he’s uneasy because he thinks he’ll look in front of the people when he tries to share the message he’s been given. “How can I be sure of this?” Zechariah says. “My wife and I are just too old.” Zechariah is not going to set his heart for joy without irrefutable proof.
Gabriel is offended by Zechariah’s response, which reveals the old priest’s lack of faith.
But Gabriel has a handy remedy for this man who wants a sign. Until the his son is born, Zechariah will be mute; in silence, he will have to listen and watch for nine months as God’s power is revealed day-by-day in his wife’s growing belly.
During one family reunion, Ella’s daughter Thelma brought out the mystery quilt top and fabrics, and said to her daughters, “We’re going to figure out what Mom had in mind for this quilt.” They laid out the pieces, tried to match them, pondered and figured over it all for a long time. Ella’s granddaughters threw up their hands, stumped. But then–“I know what she was doing!” Thelma proclaimed, demonstrating how all the pieces could finally fit together. The already-pieced portion was revealed as one-half of a Grandmother’s Flower Garden quilt. Its mirror-image needed to be pieced together and added to make a whole.
One of Ella’s granddaughters had just begun quilting with a group of church friends. Ella’s unfinished project came into her hands, and here’s how she describes what she did to carry the work forward: “I inventoried what was there, listed what fabrics were needed to complete the quilt, and started to look for fabrics that would complement the fabrics of the 30’s and 40’s that she used….I carried an envelope in my purse listing the needed prints and a scrap of the needed color. One by one, I found prints that would match the character and color of the quilt. Then the task was to cut out the hexagon pieces, sew them together by hand, join the pieces together in rows, join the rows together, and join the completed half to the one left by my grandmother. After many years, the top is complete.”
Zechariah’s nine months of silence must have seemed like a curse, initially, but ultimately, they were a long “time-out” in which he had the space and time to ponder, puzzle, reflect, and pray. He had space to consider the “long arc of his life,” his service as a priest, his love for Elizabeth, the belief he’s inherited, that God will redeem God’s people, a belief he’s struggled to hold on to in a time when his people are oppressed and his personal hopes have failed to come to fruition.
And then there was God’s unexpected disruption, the angel’s good news, not when he thought he wanted it, but not too late. Zechariah has the time to wait, watch, and wonder, and see how his life is one small part of a greater pattern, a pattern that goes on and on, in which past and present and future spiral around and within each other, in which every ending is a beginning, and every beginning leads to God’s promised end.
When his son is finally born, he is faced with his child’s naming,and he knows there is a deeper question at stake. Who will this child be? What will become of him, and us?“He will be called John,” Zechariah writes on a tablet, John, meaning “God’s gift,” “God is gracious.” and then Zechariah bursts into song.
Ella’s granddaughter, who so carefully watched and waited, gathered, cut, and completed the mystery quilt top, was none other than our own Ellen Barton. Ellen shared this story with us when she placed some leftover pieces of this project on the “Peace” collage earlier this fall. Ellen writes, “I found in the cutting, piecing, and quilting process a profound PEACE. It is in the grounding, settling process of putting small pieces together that I found a quiet place to allow thought, meditation, and memory. With the women in the quilting circle, I found wisdom, humor, and yes, bodaciousness! Who would have thought! Such a gift from my grandmother!
All that is left is to quilt the top by hand. And this process is also one of quiet meditation, a peaceful time, thinking of the journey of finding the fabrics, thinking of the Methodist ladies who added to my stash, thinking of my grandmother [and] my mother who realized her mother’s plan, thinking of the times I pieced the flowers during car trips, waiting for Ed’s mother to come through surgery, journeying with Ed while he took chemotherapy over the years, remembering the people who commented on my project and shared their story of a quilt. Peace. That is what the little scraps of fabric represent to me. I have named the quilt “Ellen played in Ella’s Garden.””
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them,” sings Zechariah, and his song is like a quilt; he sings together the pattern discerned in his time of pondering, remembering, praying, and waiting, the pattern of God’s work of redemption in our very midst. His song traces God’s long journey with Israel, from the covenant promises to Abraham, through the Word received and spoken by the long line of ancient prophets, to the culmination of those promises in the coming Messiah, the Dayspring who will give light to those in darkness, who will guide our feet in the way of peace.
Then he turns to the longed-for child in his arms, having come to see that John will carry forward the memory of his people far beyond Zechariah’s own legacy, and so he sings, “And you, child,” you have a place in this story. You, too, are a piece in the whole cloth of this pattern. You will prepare the way of the Lord, sharing the word that salvation comes in the forgiveness of sins.
Zechariah’s Song is for John, but it is also for all of us. The Benedictus has been sung, again and again across two thousand years, blessing the God who keeps promises, and promising each of us, by that God’s tender mercy, a new day is dawning. Peace is coming, peace that is not only the end of violence but is also the beginning of fulfillment and wholeness beyond our understanding.
It is a peace which comes we are all pieced together in God’s slow and careful choosing, cutting, shaping and stitching, a vast pattern which joins generation to generation, insider to outsider, strangers to friends, near and far, past, present, and future.
We are about to sing Zechariah’s Song together, and as we do, remember that, in Jesus Christ, you have been stitched into a pattern, unfathomably vast and beautiful. By God’s tender mercy, the ancient story is made new in you, as God guides your feet in the way of peace. What will your piece be?
In the power of the Spirit, let us pray: Amen, Come, Lord Jesus!