Review by John A. Thorpe
Walking Backwards to Christmas
By Stephen Cottrell. Westminster John Knox. Pp. 128. $14
Building on his success in The Nail, Bishop Cottrell has put together a remarkable and refreshing series of first-person reflections about the birth of Christ through the eyes of each character involved. Each more or less biblical character tells a story: some are earthy, some dark and raw. King Herod is full of paranoid self-justification, Anna full of prophetic wonder — but in each reflection Cottrell displays powerful insight into the “sorts and conditions” that surrounded Christ’s birth. And he maintains a remarkably pious approach to the Holy Family and the mystery of the Incarnation, even while telling about it from the inside. Like C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, it builds upon itself as the characters’ stories interact. Cottrell works backward, starting from Anna and reaching all the way back to Moses; as much as this runs contrary to the normal flow of the Advent season, he makes it work through judicious allusions to the progressing themes of Advent. While Cottrell’s hope that this book could become an adult Nativity play might be a little impractical because of the length of the narratives, it would make an excellent Advent book study, and it ought to be read even outside its target liturgical season simply on its own merits.
Dawn from on High
Homilies for the Weekdays of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany
By John D. Alexander. Forward Movement. Pp. 165. $15
Alexander’s homilies are primarily exegetical. Keyed to the Episcopal Church’s weekday eucharistic lectionary, these short sermons link all the readings for each day in one broad theme. The sermons display a firm, text-centered hermeneutic and a traditionalist theological perspective peppered with allusions to the Fathers, Anglican liturgy, and Church history. Clearly linked across the three seasons, they are also capable of stand-alone usage and can be read for personal devotion or as homilies for weekday services. If the work is thin in any department, it is in the application of biblical truths to daily life: after treating the texts at length, Alexander usually makes a single, concise point of application and leaves further reflection to the reader.
Daily Meditations for Advent and Christmas
By Danielle Tumminio. Forward Movement. Pp. 104. $5
Tumminio walks readers through both Advent and the Christmas season with daily meditations and questions for personal reflection. The meditations include Advent texts from Holy Scripture, colorful anecdotes from her ministry, quotations from popular literature, and theological reflection influenced by liberation theology. Tumminio purposefully centers the entire work around imagery of birth and pregnancy. Her work is strong on Christology but weak on traditional atonement soteriology. Readers who are new parents or expecting a child will find much to appreciate here, but the work’s appeal is not limited to new and soon-to-be parents. Tumminio writes in an accessible and personal style, and her treatment of the Magnificat during Christmas season is worthwhile.
O Radiant Dawn
5-Minute Prayers Around the Advent Wreath
By Lisa M. Hendey. Ave Maria Press. Pp. 32. $1.25
This short book delivers on the promise of its title. Hendey’s daily Advent wreath devotions are brief, but they include a full slate of responsive prayers, a short reading from Holy Scripture, moments for silent prayer, reflection questions for general audiences and younger children, and closing prayers. The devotions are designed for families or households, but they could be used profitably by individuals or churches as well. Theologically, the prayers and reflection questions tend to ask some variation of What more can you do? They could be balanced by reflections on what God has already done in Christ.
Light upon Light
A Literary Guide to Prayer for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany
Compiled by Sarah Arthur. Paraclete. Pp. 224. $18.99
Anthologies can be difficult to get right, especially when the genres of literature and prayer mix in close proximity. Often this results in too thin an appreciation for prayer or the wholesale substitution of literary forms for liturgical ones. Arthur, however, gets it right. An evident reverence for liturgical prayer guides her choices, such that this is no mere anthology of literature: it is an anthology of real Christian spirituality, expressed through a wide breadth of literary cultures and forms. The readings begin in Advent and continue all the way through the ordinary time of Epiphany. Each set is preceded by a brief liturgical order suitable for personal or small-group devotional use.
Feasting on the Word
A Thematic Resource for Preaching and Worship
David L. Bartlett, Barbara Brown Taylor, and Kimberly Bracken Long, editors.
Compiled by Jessica Miller Kelley.
Westminster John Knox. Pp. 208. $25
As with other volumes in the Feasting on the Word series, this book is eminently practical and adaptable for preachers and worship leaders. Each week’s selection includes an entire Sunday liturgy, including song suggestions, responsive prayers, Scripture readings, and even a children’s sermon. It is designed for churches that do not use a lectionary or those that desire an alternative to the lectionary readings. Each selection also includes four essays about the readings, essays written by well-known scholars, preachers, and pastors. The essays are intelligent, but not too academic to be accessible; they do, however, display a notable lack of breadth in theological perspective, almost universally assuming a foundation of liberation theology.
Goodness and Light
Readings for Advent and Christmas
Michael Leach, James Keane, and Doris Goodnough, editors. Orbis. Pp. 300. $16
This anthology of daily readings incudes selections from Pope Francis, Maya Angelou, Phyllis Tickle, and many other well-known writers. Some selections are essays, some are poems, some are short stories — all are compelling and draw the reader into contemplation of the Nativity of Christ. These selections are not exegetical, but literary. Readers will find a wide variety of literary styles and forms and a good breadth of theological perspectives. This anthology succeeds at the difficult task of hitting the rhythm of the Advent season’s changing themes, such that it would make a fine companion to a more exegetical collection of daily readings, or to daily worship.
Advent in Narnia
Reflections for the Season
By Heidi Haverkamp. Westminster John Knox. Pp. 112. $16
Haverkamp sets herself an ambitious project: connect Lewis’s classic The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe with traditional Advent Bible passages and themes as they progress through the season. Remarkably, she succeeds at this without the reader feeling like the novel has been shoehorned into an artificial framework. The connection as Haverkamp develops it feels natural, and she avoids the temptation of equating Wardrobe with Holy Scripture. Others of The Chronicles of Narnia are also quoted, and she brings in Rowan Williams’s insights from The Lion’s World, as well as Lewis’s own letters. After four weeks’ worth of reflections, Haverkamp provides suggestions for “Narnia Nights” as family-friendly church events and discussion prompts for leaders of small-group studies.
Advent with the Scriptures of Handel’s Messiah
Compiled by Jessica Miller Kelley. Westminster John Knox. Pp. 192. $15
The subtitle of this work describes it perfectly: it is an exploration of the texts of Holy Scripture that form the libretto of Handel’s classic oratorio. It is neither an exploration of the oratorio for its own sake, nor of Handel’s music, but it does connect the familiar words and music with a devotional application of those scriptures. Its treatment of the biblical texts is expansive, scholarly but accessible, and leads into plenty of application for daily life. If a church choir is preparing to sing Messiah for Advent, this work would make an outstanding devotional study as members prepare not only to sing a classic work of art but also to proclaim the gospel through Handel’s straight-from-Scripture libretto. Theologically, the book stays close to traditional understandings of the bodily resurrection and eschatology, but in key points it lacks the Atonement theology and the identification of Isaiah’s suffering servant as Christ that undergirded Handel’s treatment of the texts.
Exploring Advent with Luke
Four Questions for Spiritual Growth
By Timothy Clayton. Ave Maria Press. Pp. 160. $13.95
For anyone wishing to add a touch of monastic spirituality to Advent, Clayton’s reflections will be perfect. But the added value to this work is its deep engagement with the text of the first two chapters of Luke. Like a very readable mini-commentary, each week’s essay digs into Greek keywords and focuses intently on key characters, their contexts, and their motivations. But then each essay (four for the weeks of Advent, one for Christmas Day, and one for the Christmas season) turns toward the spiritual life, centered on significant questions asked by the biblical characters and how those questions resonate with modern daily life. This book would make a rewarding parish Advent study or a fine discipline of advance sermon preparation for the pastor hoping to engage the themes of Advent and Christmas with scholarly acumen, theological clarity, and spiritual sensitivity.
The Rev. John A. Thorpe is chaplain of St. John’s Episcopal School in Dallas.