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Advent for Our Age

Review by Beth Maynard

Gift book-sized, and purple-colored like its namesake, Advent: The Season of Hope finds Tish Harrison Warren offering an accessible and reflective take on the first season of the liturgical year. As part of the Fullness of Time series from evangelical publisher InterVarsity Press, the book is unsurprisingly aimed at readers attracted by, but lacking familiarity with, liturgical communities and the historic Christian mindsets by which they live.

The preface calls them “families and small groups looking for ways to recover ancient practices.” Readers who have logged many years in the Episcopal Church will thus mostly find the topics and facts presented familiar — just imagine the last several Advent adult education offerings at any active parish. However, that audience might find this book helpful for a different kind of recovery: learning how to explain and describe practices we may take for granted without realizing how well they connect with contemporary preoccupations and longings. If we’ve been doing Advent unreflectively, we needn’t be evangelicals to benefit from this presentation of it.

Warren’s book comprises a series of quick chapters, each neatly titled with a number: three advents of Christ, four themes of Advent, two prophets, four prayers, eight practices. In addition to covering these promised topics in a broad way, she sprinkles in brief quotations from a large selection of authors (with ample footnoting), argues gently and repeatedly for trying on the historic Christian understanding of this season, and shares some stories from her household.

Some chapters draw on standard Advent framings: the “three comings of Christ” in the Incarnation, at the end of time, and in the present moment (or in the Blessed Sacrament if you’re Anglo-Catholic). The “four prayers” are simply collects for each of Advent’s Sundays (though some of the texts will come as a surprise to members of liturgical denominations that do not use the Anglican Church in North America’s 2019 prayer book).

In other chapters, though, Warren allows herself to create a personal outline, for example, presenting the themes of Advent as “waiting and hope, darkness and light, repentance and rest, emptiness and filling.” Another section lists the particular practices of Advent as including the Ignatian examen and the prayer-fasting-almsgiving trio more usually associated with Lent. There’s nothing at all wrong with either of those proposals, of course, and the author writes about them ably; still, one would want to note that they are not the time-honored wisdom of the Church Catholic about this season, but an individual take.

The mix of classic and individualistic in this book perhaps draws on the widespread recent discussions on social media and blogging platforms about Advent, along with new ideas of how to observe it. If you’ve been listening to this conversation (due in part to Fleming Rutledge, to whom this work owes a large debt), you’ll have noticed the insight that there is something about Advent that makes it especially apropos for the 21st century. Its eschatological character, its bent toward lament with a promise in the background, and its antidote to the narcissistic chaos of consumer culture could speak vividly to a world exhausted by excess and hungry for hope, if we let them.

Diverse pieces of those recent discussions are smoothly repackaged here, and Warren does a particularly good job noting the social-justice implications of the season. That fact alone means that this book fills a need: what other work covers the complex themes of Advent for non-specialists, much less does it in a way that is conversant with contemporary preoccupations?

The book is more devotional than academic, but some readers will certainly learn from it. Unfortunately, there are a few errors of fact here and there. A section about the O Antiphons is especially awkward in its misunderstandings, but how many people will such things really bother?

Another quirk is verbal; while the book mostly seems confident in recommending the serious and sustained practice of this eschatological season, it veers now and again into a nervous, teenage-sounding, apologetic tone: “bizarre if not downright Scroogey,” “trippy, cosmic imagery,” “being a total killjoy,” “no Advent honor roll.” These moments bring a reader up short amid writing that is usually pastoral and assured.

Despite the particularity of its intended audience and its mix of individualistic and community-formed teaching, Advent: The Season of Hope would be a good choice for many Christians to dip into. In fact, we might do that before and not after Advent I, hoping that this little book will help us, in Warren’s words, become “more profoundly filled with longing for God’s deliverance of all the world, including ourselves.”

The Rev. Beth Maynard is a retired priest of the Diocese of Springfield.

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