Books for Advent

Recommendations for advent reading.

Until recently I had not been part of a church that followed the liturgical calendar. Sometimes it actively opposed such remembrance, arguing that we should celebrate Christ’s birth, his death and resurrection, everyday, especially as there was no direction to make an occasion of these events in scripture. At other times the attitude was ambivalent. Not knowing quite what to do with the season, independent churches who found their identity in having broken away from the established churches, were unable to decide whether to throw themselves wholeheartedly into the celebrations or to keep a safe distance from the worldliness of it all.

Some time before I moved to a liturgical church I found that I was slipping into a rhythm of Bible reading and contemplation that followed the cycle of Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter, as easily as my heart and writing followed the seasons of the natural world. When my inner winter times seemed to go on forever I took comfort in Lenten practices that followed the pattern of the freshly emerging spring. When resurrection Sunday came, I celebrated more deeply than before. As the last leaves turned and fell in a splendour of autumn glory, mornings were cold but thought of Advent warmed my soul. The rhythms of the church year echoed the patterns of my own spiritual formation and gave me words to pray in the different seasons of life.

Christmas approaches and we rekindle traditions within our own homes, the right date for putting up the tree, recipes we only make at this time of year, trips out to the German markets or to the theatre, a fire in the hearth every night, movies and good books. The tender meanings of incarnation in a broken world are enlivened for us in carol singing and lectionary readings. Counting down to the shortest day of the year we can make time for  extra reading, something devotional or if we are already widely read in devotional works, something more theologically challenging.

The books I am reviewing today are written for advent and offer three different approaches to devotional writing but there common goal is to help us connect more authentically with Christ, the heart of our Christmas faith.

Janet Morely, Haphazard by Starlight: A Poem a Day from Advent to Epiphany.

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This seasonally decorated book offers 37 poems on advent themes, a commentary on each and a question to guide our thoughts and prayers. Morley uses each poem as a stimulus to examine themes of fears and expectations, darkness and light, annunciation, patience, death and hope of resurrection. I have have especially appreciated how her comments on the poem open up the layers of meaning without forcibly dictating the message. The questions at the end of each chapter have been a prompt for my journal notes and help me connect what I have read with how I will respond.

Extract from a chapter one Emily Dickinson’s poem, We grow accustomed to the dark,

“An important dimension of advent is that it moves through a time when the world is becoming increasingly dark. Days are shorter, nights start sooner, and the quality of light is often dulled by poor weather. There is no avoiding having to live quite a large proportion of our waking life during hours of darkness, and for some people this is a physical reality that leads to gloom or even depression … Have you ever experienced the sense of being totally in the dark, either in your prayer life or in life decisions generally? Was it possible for you to risk keeping going in that darkness?”

 

Ann Voskamp, The Greatest Gift

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The Tree of Jesse is a symbol from Medieval art representing the ancestors of Christ as presented in the gospel geneologies. The Jesse tree is named from Isaiah 11:1: “A shoot shall come out of the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” Voskamp’s book traces the redemptive connections between characters in the Old Testament, Messianic prophesies, and significant events leading up to the birth of Jesus. Those who are familiar with Voskamp’s writing will notice the predominance of her own familiar theme: the overwhelming power of God’s grace to heal the most damaged soul.

An extract from The Greatest Gift, a reflection on Matthew 1

“God can’t stay away. This is the love story that has been coming for you since the beginning. The God. Who walked with us in the garden in the cool of the evening, before the fall shattered our closeness with him, is the God who came after his people in the pillar of cloud, of fire, because he couldn’t bear to let his people wander alone. He is the God who came to grieving job as a whirl wind, a tornado, a hurricane, who covenanted to Abraham as a smoking furnace, who wildly pitched his tent with the holy of holies so somehow, in all the Shekinah glory, he could get close enough to live amid his people.”

 

Paula Gooder, The Meaning is in the Waiting: The Spirit of Advent

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This advent book by Bible Society theologian, Paula Gooder is the most theological orientated of the three book. It involves no scholarly exegesis, but the writing reflects Gooder’s stated intent of bringing the bennefits of modern Biblical Studies to a wider audience of Christian readers. The book has four main chapters, one for each week of advent and they examine stories of waiting in the lives of Abraham and Sarah, the prophets, John the Baptist and Mary. There is an introductory chapter of waiting as a Chrsitan virtue that deals splendidly with the idea of time in Biblical thought.

An extract from the final chapter of, The Meaning is in the Waiting

“Mary’s song of praise, when it comes, is one of the most powerful in the Bible: the idea of reversal (the powerful being made low and the lowly being lifted up), the poetry, and the sheer joy of the song, have made sure that it has remained one of the churches’ favourite expressions of praise for many centuries … Luke portrays Mary as the first poetic theologian of the New Testament : she sees the event of the world around her, makes connections between them, draws deeply on her religious roots and pours this out in a beautiful hymn of praise.”