Thoroughly Alive

We must hunger after the beautiful and the good...


Advent Stars: My Favorite Books & Music for the Journey

The Appearance of the Star,  c. 1412, Fresco, Basilica di San Petronio, Bologna

The Appearance of the Star, c. 1412, Fresco, Basilica di San Petronio, Bologna

Come this Sunday, when the light goes darkling and the first Advent antiphons are humming across the street at the service for evening prayer, I get to hang our Advent star in the front window of our home. I'm quite excited about this. It's a new tradition for me, one I've been waiting to practice ever since I saw a similar star glimmering in the window of my Dutch in-laws the first Christmas season I went to visit. I saw quite a few such stars shining in the windows of the homes we passed in evening walks round the city, and I got curious. The star, I was told, symbolizes an Advent journey in sympathy with the Magi. It signifies that those in the house where it gleams also journey in search of Christ. How beautiful.

I think I will greatly enjoy its companionship during my morning quiet times because this Sunday, the first of Advent, also marks the day I will delve into my pile of Advent books, music, and images. I love Advent. I've loved it from childhood, when my family and I would gather weekly round the Advent wreath we had decked in old pinecones and berries and candles, as we read aloud from Advent devotionals rich in Scripture and prophecy. I thrilled even then to the promise that 'those who walked in darkness would see a great light'. I still do, and find my wonder furthered by the Advent writing I have discovered as an adult. What I so value is the way that the writers and artists, musicians and friends below draw me on a journey, one that helps me to acknowledge and direct my own yearning, my hunger for heaven, one that draws me as a pilgrim into the celebration of Christmas in such a way that the feasting and gifts, the music and color and fellowship actually seem to shimmer with a taste of the great good ending on its way to heal and renew our world. 

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 (though I 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. I have always found Advent richer in the company of wise writers. So I offer you my booklist (and a much shorter music list), a wise and merry gathering of literary and musical companions whose presence has made my Advent way star-bright for many years:

Watch for the Light

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 fullfillment 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.

God with Us, edited by Greg Pennoyer and Gregory Wolfe

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.

Waiting on the Word, by Malcolm Guite

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.

Haphazard by Starlight by Janet Morley

This is a similar collection to Guite's, one I have just discovered. It comes highly recommended by my tutor here at Oxford, and we are using some of the poems listed within for an Advent poetry discussion group. I love the way this book introduces me to poems I would never have discovered on my own. And, I mean, the title. Splendid thing.

Advent with Evelyn Underhill, compiled and edited by Christopher Webber

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.

The Nativitytext to Geraldine Eischner, art by Giotto

I grew up with a book very similar to this. (If you can find the version with Madeleine L'Engle's commentary, do! It is out of print.) 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 Saw Three Ships by Elizabeth Goudge

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.

The Silent Bells by William MacKellar

A lovely friend sent me this book last year and it has joined my stack of favorite Advent short stories. Set in the Swiss Alps, named for a set of cathedral bells that have never been heard but are prohesied to ring with the coming of a certain gift at the Christmas Eve service, the book is the tale of little girl's generous heart. It's a dear book. 

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.

Behold the Lamb of Godby Andrew Peterson

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.

The Promise: A Celebration of Christ's Birthby Michael Card

I grew up on these sweet, sweeping, and to me, rather haunting contemplations on the coming of the Christ child. Michael Card's music has companioned me lifelong, and I love it for its scriptural depth, its engagement with the whole of the Bible's narrative, combined with its richly imaginative lyrics. From the prophetic and dramatic tones of the opening song The Promise, this album progresses through the Christmas story through the eyes of the different people caught up in its glory. Whether in Mary's lullaby-like tune and aching wonder, or Joseph's awed contemplation (how can it be?), I find this album touches my heart with a quieted sense of worship.

Midwinter Night's Dream by Loreena McKennit.

Loreena's music has been beloved of my heart since I was a small child and heard her haunting setting to tune of a Yeats poem. The lilting quality of her voice, her love for the Celtic, her re-rendering of the old folk tunes I always wished I could discover make her a musical companion for all seasons. But I especially savor this collection and play it often in the Advent season, a gathering of more traditional hymns, carols, and yuletide songs whose lyric and melody evoke a feeling of wonder for me. 

Handel's Messiahby, well Handel.

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.

Random Gems

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.

The Wexford Carol as recorded by Alison Krauss and Yo Yo Ma. Oh my goodness, if you have never watched this joyous recording of the song by musicians just revelling in the harmony of their gifts, you really must. I played this to my belly today. I think the baby liked it. 

This enchanting image of the Annunciation.

And this sweet, folksy, joyous image of Mary and Elizabeth, with the saving secret of God himself leaping up in their wombs.

Journey of the Magi,  mosaic in the Basilica Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, c. 6th century

Journey of the Magi, mosaic in the Basilica Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, c. 6th century