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Seek out some Advent gravitas

01 November 2011

Peter McGeary looks at study and devotion as Christmas nears


Sacred Space: For Advent and the Christmas season 2011-2012
Ave Maria Press £2.50
Church Times Bookshop £2.25

The Incredible Journey: Christmas from Genesis to Jesus
Steve Brady

BRF £7.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.10

Coming and Going: Daily reflections and prayers for Advent
Gerald O’Mahony

Kevin Mayhew £11.99
Church Times Bookshop £10.80

The Unsheltered Heart: An at-home Advent retreat
Ronald Patrick Raab
Ave Maria Press £5.99
Church Times Bookshop £5.40

Reflections for Daily Prayer: Advent 2011 to eve of Advent 2012
Various authors

Church House Publishing £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30

Creative Ideas for Advent and Christmas: 80 seasonal activities for use with children
Jane Tibbs
Barnabas £8.99
Church Times Bookshop £8.10

Reflections for Daily Prayer: Advent 2011 to eve of Advent 2012
Various authors

Church House Publishing £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30

Creative Ideas for Advent and Christmas: 80 seasonal activities for use with children
Jane Tibbs
Barnabas £8.99
Church Times Bookshop £8.10

Adventures in Advent: Fun and games countdown to Christmas
Sue and Chris Govus
Kevin Mayhew £6.99
Church Times Bookshop £6.30

Gift: An Advent course for children
Patricia Ainge

Kevin Mayhew £13.99 (with CD-Rom)
Church Times Bookshop £12.60

ONE of the people who keep me going in the Church of England is the wonderfully strange novelist, poet, and theologian Charles Williams. He says somewhere that one of the earliest problems that the Church had to face was the problem of time. The Lord was risen and ascended, and had promised to return. The earliest followers of Jesus were ready and waiting, with a watchfulness and trust that we can only guess at: structures, rules, marriage, and so on, were a waste of time, as time itself was soon to be dissolved in the coming of the Lord.

And then time went on . . . and on. It became apparent to those early followers of Jesus that the Lord was not returning as quickly as they had assumed, and that certain things had to be said or done or written down to accommodate that fact. We see this process taking place in the very pages of the New Testament itself.

The problem of time has not gone away. Advent, for this writer at least, is one of the richest seasons of the ecclesiastical year. Themes of pre­para­tion, not just for the celebration of the birth of Christ but for the Second Coming, give a gravitas to the season which stands in stark contrast to the commercialised, noisy world in which we live. Advent, rightly used, is a properly counter-cultural time. But it is all too short a period! How we might use that period well informs all of these books in one way or another.

One very important thing to bear in mind is that Advent is not com­plete in itself, but the beginning of the Church’s year. Reflections for Daily Prayer takes us from Advent 2011 all the way through to the eve of Advent 2012. The daily structure gives the psalms and readings appointed for Morning Prayer in Common Worship, and a variety of (Anglican) authors provide a brief reflection on one of the readings, ending with the collect for the day.

For those of us who already struggle with the discipline of the daily office, this book provides excellent food for reflection at the beginning of a new day. For those unused to such a pattern, this might be a good way in — although the reader will need to have at least a Bible to hand, which might raise issues of port­ability for some.

No such issues exist with Sacred Space. Produced by Irish Jesuits, it gives material only as far as Epiphany, but has the advantages of being pocket-sized, and having the scripture readings printed in full. Each day offers the Gospel appointed for mass — which is the same as the one appointed in the Church of England — and a couple of ques­tions for reflection. These are in­tended to be used with the simple structure for prayer printed at the beginning of each week. An ap­pendix lays out a suggested structure for a “do-it-yourself” quiet day dur­ing Advent. Succinct and very good: in Advent, I suspect, less is more.

Staying with Roman Catholic material, The Unsheltered Heart uses the Sunday Gospels as the basis for a more extended form of “retreat” by the reader. A daily structure of silence, reflection, and commitment to action can be quite demanding for many, especially in December, but this pattern might suit people less able to leave home. There is a strong emphasis on writing things down, and this in itself can be help­ful to many: we can review the things we thought and prayed, and see how we have changed or not.

Gerald O’Mahony’s Coming and Going is not tied to any particular year, and does not shadow any liturgical cycle of readings; so it may have a broader appeal than the volumes reviewed thus far. Each week of Advent is given a theme (John the Baptist’s preparation, gifts given and received, prophets preparing the way, the love of God given to us in Jesus). The book ends with Boxing Day, and a reflection on the Second Coming. Each day gives a reading or readings from scripture (again, the text is printed in full: why can’t more publishers do this?). There follows a reflection, a sug­gestion about how the reader might respond, and a prayer. This is my kind of hermeneutic: we start out by imagining that we are interrogating the Bible, but actually it is inter­rogat­ing us.

Derek Tidball is a Baptist pastor and a much published author. Preparing the Way takes the reader through the month of December with daily reflections and questions about different kinds of preparation, examining how the world was prepared for the coming of Christ, and how we might be prepared for his coming again. The book can be used by individuals or groups: each week has a set of questions to stimulate discussion.

The Incredible Journey takes the reader from 1 December to 6 January, and the overriding theme is in the title: the journey that God makes to humanity which is shown in the scriptures, and reaches its climax in the coming of Jesus.

Each day has a scripture reading (printed in the book, thank good­ness), a very personal kind of testimony after­wards, and a brief reflection for further thought. This volume comes from a decidedly Evangelical stable, and for some the style might be a bit alien, and the use of the Bible (find­ing the text to fit the theme) a little flawed.

Nevertheless, this would be a very good book to give to an enquirer into Christianity, or somebody who wanted to get a grasp on the basic shape of the history of salvation as Christians understand it. The BRF seems to be very good at this sort of thing; free material is available from its website for group discussion, if required.

How many clergy have inwardly groaned at hearing the inevitable cliché that Christmas is a “time for the children”? How often have great and serious themes been trivialised in the name of accessibility? I have always found saying the right things to children difficult, especially in the frenzy that leads up to Christmas; so I always admire those who do it full-time.

Jane Tibbs has been involved in teaching for many years, and more recently in training clergy and others in children’s work. Creative Ideas for Advent and Christmas provides 80 ideas for people to do for the church, home, or community: things to make or cook, party games, local festivals, and so on. Many of these ideas are not too specifically Chris­tian, of course, but a very valuable way in to talking about the season, and a good way of passing on customs, traditions, and skills that can be all too easily lost.

Adventures in Advent is a short (and good) book of puzzles and games for trying to get the message of Christmas across to children. I shall be giving a copy to my church­wardens as a child-pacifier for emergencies: lots of information, succinctly told in an attractive layout.

Gift, an Advent Course for Chil­dren is a much more extensive affair, and requires proper preparation by those in charge. (A CD-ROM helps by providing templates for much of the material needed.) The course focuses on the theme of gift: what is a gift, and what gifts do we need to think about in Advent? Each weekly session begins and ends with prayer. A theme is established by the use of scripture, and this leads to a period of exploring how we might see God more clearly in our everyday lives. The children are invited to make something in response. A good course, provided there is good preparation.

Just under 1000 years ago, in a sermon for Advent, St Bernard of Clairvaux spoke about the threefold coming of Christ: the first was in a stable long ago; the second would be at some time undisclosed to us; and the third happened in the present when the believer yielded to God’s call. If any of these volumes succeeds in making God’s presence in the heart and mind of the believer a little bit clearer, and puts aside the noise of the pre-Christmas rush for a little while, then it will have served its purpose.

The Revd Peter McGeary is Vicar of St Mary’s, Cable Street, in east London, and a Priest-Vicar of Westminster Abbey.

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