WHAT IS the collective noun for Advent books? A comfort? A harrowing? Or even a dribble? Fortunately, this year’s crop yields a worthwhile harvest. Make your own mind up and see whether you are looking for cosiness, more of the same, a challenge, growth, or simply reassurance.
Some of these books consist of reflections on scripture; others are more theological; and others, again, think, as it were, outside the box, choosing play or art for their inspiration. An idea for next year: someone should surely look to music to make a playlist of recommended Advent listening?
For sheer originality, turn to Wild Advent by Rachel Summers, who teaches in a forest school. Brought to us by Kevin Mayhew and subtitled Discovering God through Creation, this is a charming book. The themes are traditional — waiting, accepting, journeying, and giving birth; the activities are not. They range from “making your own icicles” to “making bird feeders”. The intention: to understand the season of Advent by engaging with the pattern provided by nature. A book for use in the northern hemisphere, and perfect for all the family.
Becky Lovatt is a Methodist deacon. Published by Onwards and Upwards, her book invites us to go beyond the sweetie- or even gin-tasting windows of a contemporary Advent calendar. Hence the title, Beyond the Chocolate Window, with its reflections on hope — Hope Foretold, Hope Realised, and Hope to Come. Unusually, she writes in the voice of the characters who people her selection of Bible readings. So we have the voices of Eve, David, Micah, and Nehemiah, as well as those of Nicodemus, and Sarah, the wife of Cleopas. This is a good way to deepen knowledge of the scriptures as well as understand the season of Advent.
Jane Williams’s more introverted offering engages our attention through the eyes. Published by SPCK, her reflection, The Art of Advent, provides a painting a day from Advent to Epiphany. Each day ends with a couple of questions and a collect. This book takes up two seasonal themes: namely, the first coming at Christmas, and the second at the moment of death or the end of time. The pictures are varied and lovely, and the text unstintingly theological and classical. This is the Archbishop of York’s Advent Book for 2018.
SCRIPTURAL reflections cover all points of the ecumenical compass and publishing spectrum. Provenance is important — and not simply for wine buffs: Advent provides an opportunity to dip one’s feet in uncharted waters or to drink from fresh wells.
SPCK’s solid Advent for Everyone by Tom Wright undertakes the journey to Christmas through St Luke’s Gospel, and divides Advent into separate times for “encouragement, renewal, justice and celebration”.
From Wales, we have Ivor Thomas Rees’s Pathway to the Stable, published by Circle Books. This has scriptural reflections on both the Gospel characters and the places associated with them, while Kevin Mayhew brings out Bill Merrington’s Footsteps to Bethlehem. The reflections explore the relationships offered by each of the characters who figure in the Gospel text. These books could be used for personal or group use.
More robust reflections come from the Bible Reading Fellowship. The Baptist David Kerrigan’s book, The Prince of Peace in a World of Wars, takes as its starting-point the need to understand peace. It moves on to seek out saints who have found peace; then the place of the Prince of Peace; and, finally, 11 days, leading up to the Epiphany, of hard-hitting reflections on creation, the poor, politics, justice, gender, race, and rank.
Another BRF title is Celtic Advent by David Cole, which kicks off on 15 November. This looks at the three comings of Christ: at Christmas; in our everyday experience; and in final judgement and death. The emphasis is on Celtic sources and the lives and example of Celtic saints. This is a book that will offer refreshment by creating a new frame of reference for the reader, as well as a fresh cast of characters for those who feel slightly jaded when attempting to approach the crib.
Darton, Longman &Todd brings us A Shaking Reality by Peter B. Price, former Bishop of Bath &Wells. “Advent is a time of penitence, as well as a time of hope,” he writes in this thoughtful and original text. Quoting the words and example of Fr Alfred Delp, he provides a series of reflections to deepen the sense of repentance and to draw strength from Delp’s life. This is an interesting choice; for Delp was a highly intelligent and socially committed German Jesuit priest, executed by the Nazis for his resistance to Hitler in 1945.
Two books that are produced mainly for group use come from the CWR and York Courses. A Strange Christmas by Krish Kandiah takes a fresh look at the Christmas story by offering 31 days’ worth of reflections in four sections, whose titles are Strange Wait, Strange Worship, Strange Welcome, and Strange Wisdom. The booklet concludes with study notes for group use.
In Life to the Full, Matt Woodcock goes a step further. The materials include a CD packaged with the four-session ecumenical course described rather disconcertingly as “suitable for Advent or any season”. Everything on the CD is duplicated in print, and this course has been published with great respect for those who took part in the project by expressing their opinions. Horses for courses: this series will enable evangelism at the grass roots.
The Irish Jesuits’ website at www.sacredspace.ie has drawn an enormous number of people to prayer. In this print version, Advent and Christmas, practitioners of Ignatian prayer will recognise the invitation to put oneself in the presence of God, and to seek freedom and consciousness before engaging with the word of God and entering into conversation with it. Full of practical advice, and including material for a short Advent retreat, this is a rich resource for readers who seek to deepen their ability to reflect theologically and bring their reflections to prayer.
THE next cohort are Advent books by default: that is to say, they are collections of reflections for daily prayer which take in Advent and then, ambitiously, the whole of 2019; or they are customised, selecting dates for Christmas reflections.
Among the former, Church House Publishing has gathered scriptural reflections from the great and the good of the Church of England with the title Reflections for Daily Prayer: Advent 2018 — Eve of Advent 2019. The value of a collection such as this lies in the variety of recommended readings as well as the scholarship of the contributors: a thoroughly worthwhile project that will feed the prayer life of many.
For those who prefer a more seasonal collection, the specific Advent texts have also been published with the title Reflections for Advent: 26 November-24 December 2018. A slender but possibly more manageable volume at 44 pages, it has contributions from Graham James, Gordon Mursell, and Angela Tilby. One for the briefcase and train commute.
Many of the same authors feature in Church House Publishing’s Reflections for Sundays: Year C. Again, this is not strictly an Advent book, but it will provide a useful prompt/nice crib for those who like a little assistance with sermon-writing.
From the Inter-Varsity Press comes Catherine Campbell’s Journey with Me. This Northern Ireland grandmother and former nurse has had her fair share of suffering. In this well-produced book, she offers the opportunity for “waiting, walking and finding strength every day”. The starting date is 1 January; so this could be more of a Christmas present than an Advent book.
Another random selection is afforded by Church House Publishing’s Follow the Star, written by Isabelle Hamley, Chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury. This is something of a pop-up book with nice artwork and an A6 format. Sanctioned by both Archbishops, it consists of a collection of 14 reflections that start on Christmas Eve and 34 pages later hit the Epiphany with a robust invitation, “Why not visit your local church for a service today?”
The International Bible Reading Association has Fresh from the Word, ably edited by Nathan Eddy. This collection also begins with 1 January as its starting-point. Sub-titled The Bible for a change, this brings together “theologians, scholars, creative writers, church leaders and activists from around the world”, and the foreword is written by Leslie Griffiths. The result: a vigorous and thought-provoking collection, strengthened by the ecumenical and international range of its contributors. The problem: none of us knows what 2019 will bring, especially in the UK.
And, finally, a generic comment: many of the questions that these authors add to their texts are banal beyond belief. An Advent book should surely include some kind of call to action. Many of the questions sound like the proverbial “How does this make you feel?” parodied so successfully by the BBC’s radio series of the same name. Advent is surely about change and going to the heart of the matter: the great change wrought by the incarnation, sending a theological arrow into the heart of our Christmas celebrations.
Dr Lavinia Byrne is a Roman Catholic commentator and former tutor at Westcott House, Cambridge. Her own Advent book, The Dome of Heaven was published by SPCK in 1999.
Wild Advent: Discovering God through Creation
Kevin Mayhew £7.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.20
Beyond the Chocolate Window: Daily readings and meditations for Advent and Christmas
Onwards and Upwards £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9
The Art of Advent: A painting a day from Advent to Epiphany (The Archbishop of York’s Advent Book 2018)
Church Times Bookshop £8.20
Advent for Everyone: A journey through Luke
Church Times Bookshop £8.20
Pathway to the Stable
Ivor Thomas Rees
Circle Books £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9
Footsteps to Bethlehem: Advent time reflections
Kevin Mayhew £6.99
Church Times Bookshop £6.30
The Prince of Peace in a World of Wars: Applying the message of God’s love to a needy world
Church Times Bookshop £8.10
Celtic Advent: 40 days of devotions to Christmas
Church Times Bookshop £8.10
A Shaking Reality: Daily reflections for Advent
Peter B. Price
Church Times Bookshop £9
A Strange Christmas
Church Times Bookshop £5.40
Life to the Full? An ecumenical course in 4 sessions
York Courses £3.75 (booklet)
Church Times Bookshop £3.32
(Course book, including booklet, CD, and transcript is available from www.yorkcourses.co.uk; phone 01904 466516)
Advent and Christmas 2018-19
The Irish Jesuits/Sacred Space
Messenger Publications £3.95
Reflections for Daily Prayer: Advent 2018 to Eve of Advent 2019
Justine Allain Chapman and others
Church House Publishing £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30
Reflections for Advent: 26 November - 24 December
Graham James and others
Church House Publishing £2.99
Church Times Bookshop £2.70
Reflections for Sundays: Year C
Malcolm Guite and others
Church House Publishing £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50
Journey with Me: 365 daily devotions
Church Times Bookshop £11.70
Follow the Star
Church House Publishing £1.50
(Large print version, and packs of 10 and 50 available)
Church Times Bookshop £1.35
Fresh from the Word: The Bible for a change
Nathan Eddy, editor
Church Times Bookshop £8.95