The last place we'll peek into this year as Christmas approaches is the Temple, the sacred place of the Jews, who were long-awaiting their Messiah. None of the Gospel writers tell us much about what was going on in the Temple during this time, although Luke tells us of two of the faithful who joyously welcomed Jesus on His eighth day. But it doesn't take much of a leap of imagination to figure out what was probably true about the Temple at this time.
And it doesn't have a lot to do with Jesus.
Everyone in the Temple community knew that something was afoot. God was at work in the world; there was movement on the Messiah front. In fact, it's probably fair to say that everyone in the Temple community was excitedly anticipating the birth of a spectacular child, a blessed child, a child that could perhaps be the one.
It's just that for this particular community, that child was, in their minds, most likely John, not Jesus.
After all, Zacharias was a well-respected priest within the Temple. He'd been chosen that year by lots to cast the big offering in the Most Holy Place and had come out struck dumb by what he witnessed there. His wife, Elizabeth, long past her child-bearing years, was pregnant with what they all assumed was a boy (remember, this was before ultrasound) and, well, wasn't that the pattern of God? Abraham and Sarah were pregnant long after their fertile years and had Isaac. Jacob's most beloved wife could not have children, but finally bore Joseph. Over and over again, the Bible tells us that it is women past their child-bearing years who bear the most beautiful and sacred children. So naturally, the Temple is abuzz with the coming of...John.
Mary? She's just a teenage whore in Nazareth, and nothing good comes from there. An angel coming to a virgin? Hardly plausible. That's never happened before in God's story. God uses old women, not young women, and if you want to talk about young women in God's story, the sad truth is that they are poor, desolate, often abandoned or raped. Think about Tamar. Think about Ruth. They both had redemptive stories, of course, but redemption didn't come until later. Until these young women became old women.
Clearly, then, all this talk in Nazareth is just a distraction. It's just noise to take the focus away from the very spectacular thing that is happening right there in the Temple family - the blessed coming of the holy child through Elizabeth and Zacharias.
Imagine, then, the disappointment when John is born and is cool, but not really that cool. I mean, he's a nice boy and all, but he doesn't really seem to be all the sacred and holy things they thought he might have been. He's kind of, at least on the Messiah front, a dud. But the Temple community is watching him anyway. He's the best chance they have.
Notice, of course, that neither Anna nor Simeon seem to have anything to say about John. Not the way they did about Jesus.
And this, without a doubt, is one of the greatest dangers for us at Christmas: we look for it all the wrong places.
We think we know the beautiful things in the world. We think we know the holy things. We think we know the best things and how they come and where to look for them. We think, at Christmas, they come in families and feasts and boxes and bows. We think they come when we see the smiles on our children's faces when they open those gifts that we labored so hard to find for them, those things they really, really wanted. We think they come in cookies and fireplaces and brand new pajamas and waffles for breakfast. We think they come in the songs of the season and the tinsel and lights and trees. Yes, we think we know how Christmas comes.
The manger? Really? That's just a distraction. A decoration.
This Advent, let us remember where Christmas comes. Not in the places we think to look, but in the place that is all too easy to miss. Let us not neglect to believe that God is amazing and that He's doing new things all the time. Let us remember that Christmas is one of those new things, something that's never been done before in the history of Creation...and hasn't been done since.
This is Christmas.