In the month of December, the Christmas story often stands alone, lifted with huge parentheses out of the New Testament—maybe delivered in Linus’s hushed boy soprano, and then tucked away with the durable resin Nativity set and the twinkly white lights until next year. It’s a great story, so it’s easy to see why authors of every creed are drawn to its rich narrative. Left in context, of course, it holds a pivotal place in redemptive history, and since it is a Word that was given to us (John 1:14), it is natural to use words and the magic of story to give substance to our celebration. For me, every holiday is made more festive by the inclusion of books that heighten my understanding and appreciation of the occasion and that encourage me to enter in, to be present to the beauty.
The celebration of Advent has been vital for my family in spreading out the teaching, the excitement, the special family activities, and the wonder of the Incarnation over the entire month of December. Last year, for our daily Advent devotional, we gathered around From Heaven, a 28-Day Advent collection compiled from the sermons, books, and editorials of beloved 20th-century pastor and writer, A. W. Tozer. As we lit the candles and sang the carols, we savored the familiar story against the backdrop of Tozer’s unique insights:
On the Incarnation
“Nobody has ever seen God, but when Jesus Christ came, He showed us what God is like.”
“The Word became flesh . . .What we have here is one of the darkest mysteries of human thought: How the Deity could cross the wide yawning gulf that separates what is God from what is not God.”
On the Meaning of Christmas
“It does seem strange that so many persons become excited about Christmas and so few stop to inquire into its meaning, but I suppose this odd phenomenon is quite in harmony with our unfortunate human habit of magnifying trivialities and ignoring matters of greatest import.”
On Jesus’ Mission
“It could have been very easy for God to have loved us and never told us. God could have been merciful toward us and never revealed it. . . . The eternal Son came to tell us what the silence never told us. He came to tell us that God cares and God loves, and God has a plan and God’s carrying out that plan.”
On Christ’s Second Advent
“We live between two mighty events—that of His incarnation, death, and resurrection, and that of His ultimate appearing and the glorification of those He died to save. This is the interim time for the saints—but it is not a vacuum. He has given us much to do, and He asks for our faithfulness.”
Another timeless treatment of the Christmas message comes in The Irrational Season, number three in the four-volume Crosswicks Journal series. In addition to the joy of finding juicy words like anamnesis, eschaton, and pusillanimous, I turn and return to Madeleine L’Engle because her thoughts remind me that there is a sturdy Truth which can be expressed in poetry and passed on in memoir, a Truth which manages to be both orthodox as well as startling.
On the subject of God—the Creator of a world that now includes “battlefields and slums and insane asylums”—Madeleine expresses both puzzlement and awe. “Why does God treat in such a peculiar way the creatures He loves so much that He sent His own Son to them?” Even so, she affirms that a no from God is often a prelude to a better yes, and that the “only God who seems to be worth believing in is impossible for mortal man to understand.” Her portrayals of the incarnation are both homely and profound, exulting in the Word made flesh with each of her newborn babies and the touch of her husband’s warm foot under the blankets.
Madeleine L’Engle was at her best when she was describing the writing process and the relationship between a writer and her work. She saw little difference between praying and writing, and humbly attempted “to listen to the book” as she listened in prayer. Her advice to aspiring writers came from her own standard practice: “I read as much as possible, write every day, keep my vocabulary alive and changing, so that I will have an instrument on which to play the book if it does me the honor of coming to me and asking to be written.” The Irrational Season is only one of the 50 books that came to Madeleine asking to be served.
As a literary guide to prayer during the season of Advent, Sarah Arthur has compiled a rich assortment of poetry and prose from long ago and far away as well as from down the road and practically yesterday.
“Finding the works for this collection, discovering some of these authors and poets, has been like lighting one candle after another. Flame upon flame, light upon light, until the hallowed sanctuary of our quiet devotion becomes something of a shrine.”
And, that’s exactly how it feels to read Light Upon Light and to savor it, day by day, through the dark of December.
The readings are arranged into eighteen sections for four weeks of Advent, one for Christmas Eve, one for Christmas Day, two for the following Sundays, one for Epiphany and nine for the additional weeks of Epiphany. Flexibility is the name of the game, so this is not another holiday straightjacket, but, instead, a warm, comforting sweater. Each reading offers a prayer, a psalm and related Scriptures, an assortment of selections to add flame upon flame, and then a suggested closing prayer. The index of contributors is a valuable resource for further reading of favorite authors, or for answering the burning question, “Who wrote these gorgeous words?”
According to Luke 1:35, the mystery of the incarnation happened in shade, and every year I come back to this weaving of words by Luci Shaw for an adjustment to my perspective on the season of so much light and love:
When we think of God, and
angels, and The Angel,
we suppose ineffable light.
So there is surprise in the air
when we see him bring to Mary,
in her lit room, a gift of darkness.
From “The Overshadow”
Accompanied by Angels
This unexpected image of shadow, in Mary’s “lit room,” is picked up and carried further into shade by “Made Flesh,” a poem from A Widening Light in which Luci celebrates the arrival of Mary’s Son, “eclipsed in amniotic gloom” as part of His journey in taking on a body.
In these two poetry collections, Luci Shaw has captured the enormity of the Incarnation as a meeting of worlds—which is then quickly diminished to nine months of silence and a barn-birth-introduction to the “taste of bitter earth.” Ironically, Christ’s deliberate hunkering down and wizening up set in motion a chain of events that ultimately enlarges the boundaries of those who believingly follow him.
“Now I in him surrender
to the crush and cry of birth.
was closeted in time
he is my open door
From his imprisonment, my freedoms grow,
Part of his body, I transcend this flesh.
From his sweet silence, my mouth sings.
Out of his dark, I glow.”
Like apogee and perigee, image and reflection, Christ’s monumental diminishment—related to his birth as a human—ushered in the possibility of another birth for his beloved, followed by a new life that is both qualitatively and quantitatively transcendent.
Christ’s “open door to forever” redeems the throttling of flesh and time for humanity, which is tremendous theological truth to delight in over a cup of Christmas tea. However, today, what matters most to me is that the claustrophobia of the never-ending December do-list, the frenzy of decking the halls and making merry are no more—and no less!—than 21st-century versions of Bethlehem straw.
My celebration of Advent is made sweeter with the confirmation that what happened in Mary’s tiny room truly was a meeting of worlds which “fused heaven with dark earth.” God-light shines through my petty particulars, and the Word can become flesh again through my life and in my deeds. Although tethered, for now, to this planet with all its weighty tasks and unmet expectations, I find that Advent is the flashpoint where I recall that I will, one day, “join hands with heaven.”