“Once when (Zechariah) was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. … Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John.”
from Luke 1, NRSV
Most people agree that for a few weeks in December and a few days in very early January the atmosphere is different.
The undeniable interchange of gift-buying and seeing people seldom seen at other times is part of it.
Then, there’s the issue of religious faith and how Christians relate to the meaning of scriptures they consider sacred, though written thousands of years ago. Many Christians follow what’s called a liturgical calendar that places great emphasis on what happens before Christmas day in a season called Advent – coming, in Latin, and predictive of one coming that has happened and one that’s anticipated in faith.
The season sets the stage for a sharing of heaven and earth, of the visible and the invisible, of spirit and flesh.
The temple in Jerusalem was the place – a “thin place” as it has been described – in which the presence of God dwelled. It was entered only by chosen people like Zechariah, and when he was in that spiritual reality he encountered an angel, a messenger, announcing the birth of a son named John, his son, who would prepare the way for the coming of Jesus.
John, among other realities, expanded the thin place beyond the temple confines.
People of faith who celebrate Christmas believe that Jesus represents a unique coming together of divine and human, the world as we know it and the world as God desires, as Chicago minister John Vest has described.
Rob Bell, a well-known contemporary preacher and evangelist, has said that Jesus lived as if the whole world was a thin place.
That is, God is with us everywhere, which is remarkable.