The Mormon Temple of Washington D.C. stands on a hill like a castle above the northern reaches of I-494. The imposing six-spired edifice, completed in 1974, is sheathed in white marble and with Moroni’s trumpet reaching 288 feet from the ground, it’s even taller than the temple in Salt Lake City.
A recent visit there was a little reminiscent of a time, many years ago, when I rode through Jim and Tammi Bakker’s “Heritage USA” complex south of Charlotte, N.C., which also featured elaborate Christmas lights. On this trip, however, there were no time-shares for sale.
On a busy weekend night, the Visitor’s Center was organized mayhem as families in overcoats found their way into lines to pick up free concert tickets or to snake past a large statue of Jesus and through the gallery of nativities. Neatly dressed men and women whose first names had been replaced by “Elder” or “Sister” were strategically located throughout the building, each with a friendly smile and many holding a clipboard to gather information and a free Book of Mormon to give folks who expressed even the least interest in learning more about Mormonism.
The temple itself was off limits to visitors, but looking into the lobby, one could see men and women dressed in white from head to toe, as if trying to look the part of latter-day saints.
The whole thing felt just a bit creepy to me: the dark-suited elders and the stark white temple with its white-clothed personnel contrasted sharply with the colored lights on the trees. There seemed to be a conscious strategy of displaying Jesus front and center, while the more odd beliefs about ancient Hebrew sailing to America, Joseph Smith’s golden tablets, and the LDS prophet’s hotline to God remained hidden within the pages of the Book of Mormon, though stacks of them were available.
The most comfortable part, for me, was the display of nativities, a clear reminder of how people in different corners of the world see the Christmas characters so differently. Mary and Joseph were portrayed in various skin tones and wildly divergent cultural costumes. In an Aleut nativity, the Holy Family was attended by a polar bear and a walrus rather then sheep and donkeys. There were nativities carved from wood and cast from metal, inscribed into crystal or painted onto Santa’s flowing white beard.
It was a good reminder that we see Jesus in many ways, and not all of them clear. That’s one reason to be glad that Jesus sees us in the same way … as folks who are broken and in need of healing, as people who harbor the hope of making the world better, as children of God so loved by God that the Advent was deemed to be worth the cost.
That’s a welcome message any time of the year.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.