Take Zechariah. He’s a priest, rooted in the traditions of his people. He knows the rituals, the sacrifices, the stories. He knows the stories of miraculous births, especially how he and those around him are descended from an elderly couple well beyond child-bearing age.
And yet, when he receives a vision and the same promise given to Sarah and Abraham, when he’s told that he’s going to be a father, even though that’s medically impossible, he doesn’t believe. He hits the angel – the angel – with his scepticism. “How is that possible? I’m an old man.”
And so this priest, whose job it is to speak liturgies and blessings over the people, to intercede between God and man, has his voice taken away for nine months, until the miracle is there for all to see and the threat of doubting words is no longer a problem.
The Wise Men, on the other hand, have an excuse. They’re outsiders, not part of the traditions of Zechariah and Mary and all the others standing in the stable. But then again, they have a star blazing in the heavens, a star that seems to be leading them to a specific destination. Maybe there’s an echo here of the Pillar of Fire leading the Hebrews through the desert; however it works, God’s leading these men to the Messiah. All they have to do is follow.
And yet they end up in Jerusalem, not Bethlehem, because they’re following their assumptions rather that their star. And it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that their assumptions ultimately get children killed. They’re immortalised as the Three Wise Men, but their wisdom fails with tragic consequences.
It’s not directly their fault, I guess. They just blundered into the middle of politics and power. They interfere with the fragile structures that hold Israel and Rome together, bringing news that threatens alliances and national security. Herod knew that God’s Messiah had been prophesised long ago, but that was in the writings of ancient seers, not current political realities. He could have seen fulfillment; instead he sees a threat, and kings know how to deal with threats.
These are priests, academics, leaders. These are the authority figures. And, pretty comprehensively, they all get it wrong. Meanwhile, a teenage girl and and a barren old woman and a working class carpenter and a bunch of despised shepherds get it right.
This isn’t an assault on authority, although it’s tempting to read it as such. It’s more about recognising where authority sits, and who’s really sits on top of our hierarchies. God is in charge of this plan throughout, it’s just that the poor and uneducated and marginalised realise this and follow the plan, while the authority figures trust in their own knowledge and positions and power. Instead of trusting God, they actively get in the way.
And so, the question this Advent is, do I trust in my own intelligence, my own power, my own place in the world’s hierarchy? Or do I accept that God is king, God is in charge, and that he’s more interested in my humility than my authority?
How do I, in short, make sure I’m not getting in the way of the holy, not acting as a stumbling block to the miraculous?