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Aftershave or gingerbread?

01 November 2013

Philip Welsh looks at offerings for a devout keeping of Advent

© sonia halliday photographs

When he delve:Adam, in Canter­bury Cathedral's Ancestors of Christ windows, attributed to the Methuselah Master, 1178-80. From a new book.See caption overleaf

When he delve:Adam, in Canter­bury Cathedral's Ancestors of Christ windows, attributed to the Methuselah Master, 1178-80. From a new book.See captio...

Expecting Christ

David Wilbourne

York Courses £3.90 (booklet)


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(Course pack, including booklet, CD, and transcript, is available from www.yorkcourses.co.uk; phone 01904 466516)


Light to the Nations: An Advent course based on the prophecies of Isaiah

John Cox

KM £8.99


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Haphazard by Starlight: A poem a day from Advent to Epiphany

Janet Morley

SPCK £9.99


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£9 (Use code CT273)


An Advent Pilgrimage: Daily reflections and prayers for Advent

Paul Nicholson

KM £8.99


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Real God in the Real World: Advent and Christmas readings on the coming of Christ

Trystan Owain Hughes

BRF £7.99


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Waiting in Joyful Hope: Daily reflections for Advent and Christmas 2013-2014

Jay Cormier

Liturgical Press £1.50


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The Heartbeat of Hope

Elizabeth Rundle

CWR £6.99


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Born for You: Meditations for Advent and Christmas

Kay Brown

Gilead Books £5.99


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The Gingerbread Nativity: A four-week exploration of Advent

Renita Boyle

Barnabas for Children £6.99


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£6.30 (Use code CT273)


THIS Advent, do you want to meet others for discussion, or make some time for reflection? If you're picked on to run a group, do you want some handholds to get you through, or plenty of room for manoeuvre? Do you want chatty material from authors pretending to be your friend, or a cooler approach, and the risk of mentioning someone you've never heard of? Do you want Advent to be a run-up to Christmas, or an astringent season for confronting the Last Things, a sort of aftershave for the soul? "What are you looking for?" is, after all, the basic Advent question.

Bishop David Wilbourne has written Expecting Christ for the well-established York Courses, and looks for Christ in family, in me, in prayer, and in the end. Each week provides an easygoing four pages to read in advance, a CD interview with the author for the group to listen to, and good questions for discussion. It is a very manageable formula for progressive immersion, as participants move from overhearing the conversation to joining in.

The initial session on family may be at odds with the demographic of many church groups; and the final session collapses the Christian understanding of the end into reflections on dying. He quotes T. S. Eliot's famous line, "The end is where we start from", but Eliot said elsewhere:


Because the beginning shall remind us of the end

And the first coming of the second coming.


Wilbourne's matey, anecdotal style will not please everybody. The booklet's cover shows people waiting for the curtain to rise. I felt a bit trapped on the sofa.

In complete contrast, John Cox's Light to the Nations is reticence itself. We learn nothing at all about the author, Christmas is not mentioned, and the first exclamation mark is withheld until page 16. The five sessions are based on Isaiah's proclamation of the one who is to come, and look at the poor, the captives, the blind, the oppressed, and the year of the Lord's favour. Cox provides excellent, thought-provoking expositions from a mature appreciation of scripture.

His tone is relatively formal, with Bob Dylan the only nod to popular culture, unless you count Milton. The points for discussion bring the biblical vision to bear on the society we live in through sharp questions, with simple, awkward statistics to inhibit our wishful thinking. This is properly an Advent course, unafraid to insist that we look towards the light of Christ from a frequently dark world. Leaders will need to be selective with the many questions for discussion. The book could also prove suitable for individual use.

In Haphazard by Starlight, Janet Morley presents a poem a day from Advent to Epiphany. A handful are period classics, but the majority are by established 20th-century authors. Some poems are explicitly religious; many are not. She claims them as vehicles for meditation because a poem requires attention to yield its meanings, and it doesn't "browbeat the reader". The short analysis that Morley provides for each poem is particularly successful. It indicates sensitively and in some detail how the poem works, so that it can speak most effectively to the reader. Occasionally she provides background information, largely for the older poems; and each day ends with a question for personal thought.

The book is well pitched. Poetry aficionados will appreciate her readings without feeling talked down to; those unhabituated to poetry will find her choices accessible and her comments helpful. Designed for daily use, it could also work for groups comparing notes weekly.

Paul Nicholson is a Jesuit, and An Advent Pilgrimage finds a place within the Ignatian tradition of self-examination and spiritual exercises. Under the overarching metaphor of pilgrimage, each day contains a gift to ask for, a reflection for the road, a verse or two of scripture to accompany you, and a prayer that supplies words for the journey. Each week gives a succession of journeying themes such as homesickness, mountain-tops, short cuts, and hospitality, and figures from the Advent to Epiphany story are enlisted as companions.

Pilgrimage as metaphor is nicely substantiated by reference to the literal pilgrimages of Jesuit novices, and proves a many-sided image for the journey of faith, as distinct from the race of life. I question whether "metanoia means literally to turn around," but I did enjoy the prayer that swallowed its own bibliography: "Loving God . . . I make my own the words of Dag Hammerskjöld . . ."

Real God in the Real World by Trystan Owain Hughes is also designed for daily use, with questions for possible weekly discussion. Each day offers a Bible passage, a discursive contribution by the author, and a particular suggestion for further reflection. His theme is the incarnation, not only in our own lives and in our neighbours', but also in the natural world. Ironically, he starts by quoting with approbation the Docetic howler "Veiled in flesh the Godhead see". Hughes is highly anecdotal and self-referential. We learn a good deal about his boyhood, his family, and his taste in films and TV. Settling on the right register for a popular course is a hard call, but too often it comes across here as trite or laboured.

Waiting in Joyful Hope may sound like one of those old records by singing nuns, but in fact is rather a good pocket-book in an American Roman Catholic series. Each day supplies a verse or two from the daily Gospel, a concise reflection, a well-chosen question for meditation, and a prayer. Jay Cormier is a teacher of homiletics who clearly has an endless repertoire of stories, but knows how to keep them under control - albeit again with a good deal of family reference.

He doesn't attempt exegesis, and a frequent homiletic move is to turn a biblical detail into a metaphor for the human condition - "our own mangers", "the Herods within us" - which works well when scripture needs bringing close, less well when it needs to be made strange. This is just the course for the devout to use at the bus stop, as its title might suggest. Road-testing indicates that each day's material is good for two to three stations on the Tube.

The Heartbeat of Hope is as banal as its title. It comes from Crusade for World Revival, only identified as CWR in the book. Elizabeth Rundle invites us to "lift our eyes from the problems of the world": "Let me invite you to explore the pulse of longing for God's Messiah." More than once the author is reduced to tears, notably in a reflection reassuring us that "our Saviour reaches out in the power of the Holy Spirit . . . to keep us from agitation." At one point she asks: "Can you think of anything better than peace?" What about Unamuno's great peroration, "May God deny you peace, and give you glory!"?

Born for You is not for me. Eight monologues by characters from the Christmas story is a well-intentioned idea, but the quality of imagination and writing is just not up to it, managing to be pedestrian and overwrought at the same time. Mary: "as for my feelings - awe, mixed with doubt, fear and wonder, and, strangely, even a sense of anticipation"; Joseph: "I feel as never before, the significance of belonging to David's line"; the Innkeeper: "Streams of love and truth wash over me." But these meditations by Kay Brown might provide ideas for a family service.


The Gingerbread Nativity is this year's bonne bouche - four children's workshops exploring the Christmas story while manufacturing a gingerbread nativity scene. It took me back to presenting a Battenburg cake at an Old Testament tutorial years ago, insisting that the four segments represented J, E, D, and P, bound together by canonical marzipan.

Renita Boyle is far more con- vincing, and detailed instructions even prescribe the confectionery representation for animal poo. It could be a lot of messy fun for well-resourced Sunday schools or holiday clubs. But it asks a lot of its leaders, as they are expected to run a craft activity, manage a group of children, and engage while doing so in "a spiritually meaningful chat", ideas for which are listed.

John Cox provides the sharpest course for group use, and Janet Morley the most imaginative daily resource, with Nicholson and Cormier as backup. Though, if Advent really is about standing before the judgement of the radically new, try The Gingerbread Nativity on your PCC.

The Revd Philip Welsh is a recently retired priest living in London.

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