When I’m asked to describe why I became an Anglican, I think back to my freshman year of college, when I first started my journey towards Canterbury. As a student at Wheaton College, I had a lot of options on a Sunday morning. The town of Wheaton, just outside of Chicago, has more churches per capita than almost anywhere else in the country, and most of them court new students with promises of free rides from campus and home-cooked meals after their services. I had grown up in a charismatic house church, gone to an Assemblies of God elementary school, and attended Baptist churches in my middle school and high school years, so it came as a surprise that I ended up in an Anglican church, but there I discovered gifts of church tradition that I had never encountered before.
One such gift was the liturgy’s attentiveness to language. Phrases from the Book of Common Prayer hung in the air before me, simultaneously shimmering with beauty and convicting me with their gravity. As a newly minted English major, I found myself savoring the words of the collects and the general confession, turning them over in my spirit like a delicacy on the tongue. I had never experienced a church service that acknowledged the power of beautiful language to transfix and transform us.
The cycle of the church calendar was also a new gift to me. Rather than trudging through a long series of monotonous Sundays, each one as generic as its predecessor, I found myself walking through the central story of my faith at a much slower pace, as each Sunday built on the previous week and traced the next chapter of that story. The church seasons invited me not just to recall the events of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection on a cognitive level, but to enter into them as a participant.
Now, almost 15 years later, the language of the liturgy and the shape of the church year continue to mold me as a Christian and as a priest, but I must admit that the newness has worn off. Over time, language that was once so fresh becomes rote, and the seasons that sparked so much reflection become routine. In order to enter these seasons with intention, I have found it necessary to seek out spiritual guides to help me stay centered on Christ.
As Advent draws near this year, I am looking forward to reading a new devotional that brings together my love for language and for the church seasons. In her new book Light upon Light: A Literary Guide to Prayer for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany, Sarah Arthur helps us approach this overly familiar time of year in a new way, gathering together different voices that help us “experience Christmas in all its raw strangeness, stripped (when possible) of sentiment, tuned to a different pitch” (10). Rather than offering her own devotional reflections, Arthur offers a selection of prose and poetry from a wide range of authors for each week of Advent, Christmas, and the season after Epiphany. For anyone who loves literature, it is a delight to turn each page and discover either beloved religious poems like those of John Donne, Christina Rossetti, and Gerard Manley Hopkins, or less expected choices like an excerpt from John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. Arthur weaves these disparate pieces together in a way that beautifully illuminates the significance of these three church seasons. As the back cover says, her work is “a literary and spiritual feast” for anyone who loves literature and wants to experience afresh the reality of Christ’s incarnation.
As Advent approaches, I am grateful for another opportunity to relive the events that are so central to our faith, and I’m thankful for literary companions whose words bring fresh perspective on the love shown to us in Christ. May we prepare to welcome him into our hearts and lives once again.