In the month of December, the Christmas story often stands alone, lifted with huge parentheses out of the New Testament—maybe delivered in Linus’s hushed boy soprano, and then tucked away with the durable resin Nativity set and the twinkly white lights until next year. It’s a great story, so it’s easy to see why authors of every creed are drawn to its rich narrative.  Left in context, of course, it holds a pivotal place in redemptive history, and since it is a Word that was given to us (John 1:14), it is natural to use words and the magic of story to give substance to our celebration. For me, every holiday is made more festive by the inclusion of books that heighten my understanding and appreciation of the occasion and that encourage me to enter in, to be present to the beauty. 

The celebration of Advent has been vital for my family in spreading out the teaching, the excitement, the special family activities, and the wonder of the Incarnation over the entire month of December. Last year, for our daily Advent devotional, we gathered around From Heavena 28-Day Advent collection compiled from the sermons, books, and editorials of beloved 20th-century pastor and writer, A. W. Tozer. As we lit the candles and sang the carols, we savored the familiar story against the backdrop of Tozer’s unique insights:

On the Incarnation

“Nobody has ever seen God, but when Jesus Christ came, He showed us what God is like.”

“The Word became flesh . . .What we have here is one of the darkest mysteries of human thought: How the Deity could cross the wide yawning gulf that separates what is God from what is not God.”

On the Meaning of Christmas

“It does seem strange that so many persons become excited about Christmas and so few stop to inquire into its meaning, but I suppose this odd phenomenon is quite in harmony with our unfortunate human habit of magnifying trivialities and ignoring matters of greatest import.”

On Jesus’ Mission

“It could have been very easy for God to have loved us and never told us. God could have been merciful toward us and never revealed it. . . . The eternal Son came to tell us what the silence never told us. He came to tell us that God cares and God loves, and God has a plan and God’s carrying out that plan.”

On Christ’s Second Advent

“We live between two mighty events—that of His incarnation, death, and resurrection, and that of His ultimate appearing and the glorification of those He died to save. This is the interim time for the saints—but it is not a vacuum. He has given us much to do, and He asks for our faithfulness.”

Another timeless treatment of the Christmas message comes in The Irrational Season, number three in the four-volume Crosswicks Journal series. In addition to the joy of finding juicy words like anamnesis, eschaton, and pusillanimous, I turn and return to Madeleine L’Engle because her thoughts remind me that there is a sturdy Truth which can be expressed in poetry and passed on in memoir, a Truth which manages to be both orthodox as well as startling.

On the subject of God—the Creator of a world that now includes “battlefields and slums and insane asylums”—Madeleine expresses both puzzlement and awe. “Why does God treat in such a peculiar way the creatures He loves so much that He sent His own Son to them?”  Even so, she affirms that a no from God is often a prelude to a better yes, and that the “only God who seems to be worth believing in is impossible for mortal man to understand.” Her portrayals of the incarnation are both homely and profound, exulting in the Word made flesh with each of her newborn babies and the touch of her husband’s warm foot under the blankets.

Madeleine L’Engle was at her best when she was describing the writing process and the relationship between a writer and her work. She saw little difference between praying and writing, and humbly attempted “to listen to the book” as she listened in prayer.  Her advice to aspiring writers came from her own standard practice: “I read as much as possible, write every day, keep my vocabulary alive and changing, so that I will have an instrument on which to play the book if it does me the honor of coming to me and asking to be written.” The Irrational Season is only one of the 50 books that came to Madeleine asking to be served.

As a literary guide to prayer during the season of Advent, Sarah Arthur has compiled a rich assortment of poetry and prose from long ago and far away as well as from down the road and practically yesterday.

“Finding the works for this collection, discovering some of these authors and poets, has been like lighting one candle after another. Flame upon flame, light upon light, until the hallowed sanctuary of our quiet devotion becomes something of a shrine.”

And, that’s exactly how it feels to read Light Upon Light and to savor it, day by day, through the dark of December.

The readings are arranged into eighteen sections for four weeks of Advent, one for Christmas Eve, one for Christmas Day, two for the following Sundays, one for Epiphany and nine for the additional weeks of Epiphany. Flexibility is the name of the game, so this is not another holiday straightjacket, but, instead, a warm, comforting sweater.  Each reading offers a prayer, a psalm and related Scriptures, an assortment of selections to add flame upon flame, and then a suggested closing prayer.  The index of contributors is a valuable resource for further reading of favorite authors, or for answering the burning question, “Who wrote these gorgeous words?”

According to Luke 1:35, the mystery of the incarnation happened in shade, and every year I come back to this weaving of words by Luci Shaw for an adjustment to my perspective on the season of so much light and love:

When we think of God, and
angels, and The Angel,
we suppose ineffable light.

So there is surprise in the air
when we see him bring to Mary,
in her lit room, a gift of darkness.

From “The Overshadow”
Accompanied by Angels

This unexpected image of shadow, in Mary’s “lit room,” is picked up and carried further into shade by “Made Flesh,” a poem from A Widening Light in which Luci celebrates the arrival of Mary’s Son, “eclipsed in amniotic gloom” as part of His journey in taking on a body.

In these two poetry collections, Luci Shaw has captured the enormity of the Incarnation as a meeting of worlds—which is then quickly diminished to nine months of silence and a barn-birth-introduction to the “taste of bitter earth.”  Ironically, Christ’s deliberate hunkering down and wizening up set in motion a chain of events that ultimately enlarges the boundaries of those who believingly follow him.

“Now I in him surrender
to the crush and cry of birth.
Because eternity
was closeted in time
he is my open door
to forever.
From his imprisonment, my freedoms grow,
find wings.
Part of his body, I transcend this flesh.
From his sweet silence, my mouth sings.
Out of his dark, I glow.”

Like apogee and perigee, image and reflection, Christ’s monumental diminishment—related to his birth as a human—ushered in the possibility of another birth for his beloved, followed by a new life that is both qualitatively and quantitatively transcendent.

Christ’s “open door to forever” redeems the throttling of flesh and time for humanity, which is tremendous theological truth to delight in over a cup of Christmas tea. However, today, what matters most to me is that the claustrophobia of the never-ending December do-list, the frenzy of decking the halls and making merry are no more—and no less!—than 21st-century versions of Bethlehem straw.

My celebration of Advent is made sweeter with the confirmation that what happened in Mary’s tiny room truly was a meeting of worlds which “fused heaven with dark earth.”  God-light shines through my petty particulars, and the Word can become flesh again through my life and in my deeds.  Although tethered, for now, to this planet with all its weighty tasks and unmet expectations, I find that Advent is the flashpoint where I recall that I will, one day, “join hands with heaven.”

Michele Morin

Michele Morin is a teacher, reader, writer, and gardener who blogs at Living Our Days. She has been married to an unreasonably patient husband for over 25 years, and their four children are growing up at an alarming rate. She is active in educational ministries with her local church and her writing has appeared at SheLoves Magazine, The Mudroom, (in)courage, and elsewhere. Michele loves hot tea and well-crafted sentences, poems that stop her in her tracks and days at the ocean with the whole family. She laments biblical illiteracy, finds joy in sitting around a table surrounded by women with open Bibles, and advocates for the prudent use of “little minutes.” You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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  1. Oh Michele, I want to read all these words right now! (As Tozer’s Pursuing God is turned upside down at the last page I read beside me.). Thank you for sharing these books. Hugs. Susan

  2. Thank you, Michele, for these recommendations. I appreciate a curated list and the invitation to be mindful in a season of busyness.

    1. One of my favorite things about these books is that they can be consumed in small gulps. We’re on the run and if we make good us of our pauses, we can take in a bit of truth to carry us until the next pause!
      Sarah, it’s lovely to meet you here!

  3. Love A.W. Tozer’s thoughts, but all of the quotes you’ve shared bring the Advent season into sharper and more compelling focus, Michele. Thanks so much for inspiring us, my friend!

    1. Our family really enjoyed Tozer’s concise style as well as his deep homey wisdom. I recently read a biographical account of his life. Like many of the male Christian leaders of his time, he was a sad failure at home, and that makes me sad in response, but even this is a lesson for me, because I also struggle not to be distracted and dwelling inside my head. In case you’re interested, the book I’m referencing is Vintage Saints and Sinners, published by IVP. It gives cameos of 25 well-known heroes of the faith, warts and all, followed by insights from Karen Wright Marsh’s (the author’s) faith journey.

    1. Yes, somehow Moody has been cranking out Tozer compilations like crazy. I read one that focused on all of his writing on prayer which was excellent. Apparently, Tozer had a pair of pants he wore when he prayed, a sort of uniform, I suppose to save wear on his good suit pants, because he prayed stretched out on the floor of his study for hours and hours.
      Glad to know we share an appreciation for yet another author.

  4. Michele,
    I found myself nodding, and ah hahing, and pondering so many of these thoughts. So thankful I did rather than dragging out my boxes of 21st century straw so that I could magnify the trivialities. Thank you for recalibrating my heart instead.
    Blessings,
    Bev xx

    1. I love this time of year. Sometimes I’ll be pushing a shopping cart in some crowded aisle and will hear the words “Glory to the Newborn King” sung by some pop star, but who cares? When in the world do we ever stop and just focus on Jesus? I love that Christmas books are almost their own genre!

  5. I will have to look up the one by Tozer – I’ve enjoyed many of his writings. A couple of my favorite Christmas readings are Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus: Experiencing the Peace and Promise of Christmas by Nancy Guthrie, Let Every Heart Prepare Him Room: Daily Family Devotions for Advent, also by Nancy Guthrie (even though this one is designed for the whole family, I enjoyed reading it alone as well), and The Women of Christmas: Experience the Season Afresh with Elizabeth, Mary, and Anna by Liz Curtis Higgs.

      1. I’m very interested in those Advent reflections by Nancy Guthrie. I’ll have to get my hands on one for next year. She’s such a wise and wonderful writer. Do you listen to her podcast? (Help Me Teach the Bible)
        So many good things to read this time of year. I’ll have to look up your review of Tozer’s Advent book — it’s fun to get others’ perspectives on a shared book!
        Blessings to you, Barbara!

  6. Oh, yes, this: “My celebration of Advent is made sweeter with the confirmation that what happened in Mary’s little room truly was a meeting of worlds which “fused heaven with dark earth.” God light shines through my petty particulars, and the Word can become flesh again through my life and in my deeds. Although tethered, for now, to this planet with all its weighty tasks and unmet expectations, I find that Advent is the flashpoint where I recall that I will, one day, “join hands with heaven.”
    Maybe this popped out at me because I was at a wake for a dear cousin last night who is now with our LORD. I told my daughter after coming home that the funeral home sounded like a fellowship hall when we walked in due to all the brothers and sisters in Christ celebrating my cousin’s life and testimony for Jesus. 🙂

    1. I love the image of this gathering around your friend’s memory, and it’s so true that we do celebrate as we grieve “not as others who have no hope.” Because Jesus joined us here on this planet, there’s a glory and a beauty to the enfleshment of our own souls, but what a delight to know that we will one day “join hands with heaven.”
      Thank you, Katie, for sharing this thought that makes it all so practical.

  7. These books all sound fantastic, Michele. I want to read them all, but I think I’ll start with the one from Madeleine L’Engle. I did not know she wrote a book about advent and I am intrigued by her advice about writing. I love the advent season. Contemplation gives us a reprieve from the frenzy of the world at this time of year.

    1. L’Engle refers to the church calendar a lot in her writing, and in this particular book she starts at Advent and follows the year all the way through to the Michelmas daisies.
      I remember being thrilled when I “discovered” Advent. The truth of the Incarnation and birth of Christ deserves more than just a one day celebration.

  8. Michele, I like the idea of focusing your reading during Advent on . . . Advent. Call me what you will, I’ve never thought to do that, beyond reading The Greatest Gift, by Ann Voskamp.

    You bring out some great quotes. They’re simple yet profound. I especially like this one:

    “The Word became flesh . . .What we have here is one of the darkest mysteries of human thought: How the Deity could cross the wide yawning gulf that separates what is God from what is not God.”

    It puts a picture into what John one talks about.

    Great post, friend!

  9. Thanks for sharing, Michele. You sure can’t go wrong with reading Tozer. And I was not aware Madeleine L’Engle had written 50 books. I’ve only read one. Thanks, also, for including her advice to aspiring writers – there is much for me to do!

  10. Thanks, Jeanne. John 1 and Hebrews 1 take on special meaning for me at this time of year. When we sing “late in time behold Him come,” we’ve sung the glorious truth that “God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets has in these last days spoken to us by His Son.”
    Thanks for reading, Jeanne, and for your always-encouraging voice.

  11. “Join hands with heaven.” What a beautiful sentiment. Has my mind wandering to what joining hands with heaven looks like. Great post, friend. thanks for insights from these great books. I can’t believe I’ve read none of them. Madeleine is one of my faves, too. 🙂 Hope you and your family have a wonderful advent season–joining hands with heaven. Merry Christmas, friend. xoxo

  12. I love pondering all the implications of the incarnation — and one of my favorites is this business of Jesus taking on a body and ,thereby, lending significance and dignity to our own earth-bound condition.
    We tend to get all super-spiritual sometimes, and there’s nothing like picturing a birth in a barn to bring things into perspective.

  13. Thanks for sharing these group resources, Michele. I read The Irrational Season a year or two ago and really benefited by it. I’m reading two new Advent devotionals this year, one by a friend and one by Paul David Tripp. They both are so encouraging! I’m thankful we live in an age where it’s so easy to find good material.

    1. Good point, Lisa. We almost have to be careful not to overload ourselves with Advent reading in order to leave time for the Original Source material. Just today I was reading Zacharias’s song in Luke 1 and thinking how blessed we are to have these gorgeous words of prophecy and praise!

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