Advent Companions: Books, Songs, and Stories for the Journey
The days here die down at about 4:30 now. The last gold leaves scatter and star the sidewalks in the early dusk and curtains get drawn tight over the windows on my street. Light, warmth, those elemental needs drive us inward and I have come to a freshened appreciation for the heat of a good radiator to fend off the cold, the flicker of a lit candle to fend off the early darkness, and the succour of Handel's Messiah and Malcolm Guite's poems to make fire and gold of the shadows that knock at my soul. Ah friends, the season has come when we must cling to light even as we walk in the darkness. Advent, oh joy, is almost upon us. I love Advent. In these four weeks my soul goes on a journey that is a small picture of my soul's great story. Christmas blazes on the horizon, but then, so does heaven, both just beyond my reach, both great gifts that give me hope amidst the shadows. In these four weeks I remember the pilgrim nature of my life here on earth. Advent teaches me to yearn afresh for Christ. To so recognise my need for him that a great waiting space is made for him in my heart. In that readiness I then turn my face to the starblaze of Christ and at Christmas, taste a childlike, wondering bit of what it will be to arrive in the new heavens and the new earth when night will be no more because the daylight of his presence is unending.
Here in England, Advent is a serious thing. Some of my friends (my husband may just be included) would rather not sing a carol or deck the halls till Christmas day (I, however, will definitely be doing some Advent decking of this little house). They wait for these delights, not in a legalistic denial but in a hope that has been ripened by weeks of watching and walking that leads them to truly savour the fulness of Christmas in its wonder, its feasting, its mystery. You need companions for such a journey though, if you ask me. So I offer you my booklist, a wise and merry gathering of bookish and musical companions whose presence has made my Advent way bright for many years:
I first found this years back when one of its most arresting passages was quoted in a daily Advent devotional I received by email. Having found these words - But round about the horizon the eternal realities stand silent in their age-old longing. There shines on them already the first mild light of the radiant fulfillment to come. From afar sound the first notes as of pipes and voices - I hungered for more of the same. And my hunt led me back to this collection of stirring Advent contemplations, one a day through Epiphany. For a book that sets you in the strong, clear light of Advent as a season of preparation, even of penitence, this is the best. The readings here aren't meant to evoke nostalgia or even comfort (yet), but to help a reader come wide awake, to take account, to consider what it is she hopes and what the coming of that hope means to the here and now. For 'preparing a way for the Lord' in my heart in this season, this book has long been a brave and resourceful companion.
This book is a luminous companion, prepared by the faithful and creative minds behind the literary Image Journal. This book offers carefully selected pieces of art, daily Scripture readings and prayers, and daily Advent devotionals, each week written by a different Christian writer or pastor. This is an ideal Advent devotional book as it offers a compact but rich contemplation, short enough for a snatched quiet time, but rich enough in image and idea to shape one's thoughts for the whole day. It's a world of a book, a twilit, contemplative, Advent world.
Poetry, as Owen Barfield insightfully claimed, can bring about 'a felt change of consciousness', a process that I think is at the heart of Advent celebrations and one that is masterfully crafted for a reader in this collection of Advent poems by Malcolm Guite. Guite's Lent collection has been my companion for the past two years, and the Advent one is a new favourite. Guite doesn't just give you a poem to read, he guides you into the heart of the woven words, words that can truly shift your sight from boredom to wonder, from discontent to thanks, from discouragement to a newly-kindled hope. Combined with his own radiant sonnets, this book is a gift of lyrical beauty and devotional quiet.
This is a similar collection to Guite's, one I have just discovered. I must admit I have not yet delved deeply into it, but its highly recommended by my tutor here at Oxford, and we are using some of the poems listed within for an Advent poetry discussion group. (More about that later this week.) And, I mean, the title. Splendid thing.
I make no secret of my love for Evelyn Underhill. Her confident, motherly voice in writing, not to mention her excellent scholarship on contemplative prayer and Christian mysticism, has shaped my devotional life in countless ways. This collection of daily Advent readings has been culled from her many devotional works. These are short, accessible, powerful readings you could peruse in a spare 5-minutes. I've taken this book along to the airport to read in the waiting area and the pithy, wondrous tone always startles my soul awake even in the midst airport craze.
I grew up with a book very similar to this. From childhood, I was fascinated by Giotto's cycle of paintings around the Advent and Christmas story, and I have encountered few pieces of art that so capture the ache and wonder, the pain and passion of Christ's coming into this world. I think that art arrests the mind in a different way than words, allowing our eyes a fixed contemplation in which our imaginations 'see' the story of Christ afresh.
I only grow in my love of good short stories. This one, in a simple, tightly woven little tale manages to tug hard at every hopestring in your heart, combine childhood Christmas delight with grown-up yearning, and bring it all to an end that, I must admit, brought tears to my eyes the first time I read it. It's a gem of a story, an emerald gem, bright with all the life of Christmas if you ask me.
Celtic Christmas Spirit by Caroline Peyton While this isn't strictly 'Advent' music, I find the haunting quality and some of the more ancient carols in this collection help me stand aside from commercial, contemporary Christmas and engage with Advent. I haven't found anything quite like this collection of Celtic Christmas music. Granted, my taste for the lilting and haunting runs strong, but there is a wonder and glory in this that I savour.
Ah, this is an excellent journey of music, one that draws you into the high drama of angels and the sweet, low folksy drama of the stable in songs you will find yourself singing under your breath throughout the season. Andrew Peterson's storytelling in song, his grasp of the storied nature of faith, has made his music among my favourite for many years, but this album, inviting you to 'behold the Lamb of God' is one that has enriched my Advent journey in countless ways.
I have listened to this masterpiece on repeat for the past few weeks (I need it!), but this marvelous creation is always an accompaniment to my Advent season. This is a world of a work, an epic of storied music recounting the whole history of Christ's coming, leading us prophecy by prophecy by promise, in some of the most glorious choral music the world has known, into the hallelujah heart of what Christmas truly means. Listen to this repeatedly, let the story of Scripture soak into your memory and heart and tell me if your mind isn't formed a little more to wonder each day.
In addition to the faithful companion books and albums listed above, I discovered a few wonderful resources online, as well as a few marevlous single songs that enchant and captivate my mind in this season. Among them are:
Biola's Advent Project Blog: Daily contemplations with music and art. Highly recommended by my sister.
Hills of the North Rejoice - an Advent hymn I'd never heard until I arrived in England. Listen all the way through. Listen to each verse. It's marvelous.
And this sweet, folksy, joyous image of Mary and Elizabeth, with the saving secret of God himself leaping up in their wombs.