The Christmas Story

The Christmas Story

Author Martin Payne
Publisher BRF £2.50
Format pbk
ISBN 9781800391208

This little book covers the Christmas story from the announcement to Zechariah of the coming of the Christ child, to the escape to Egypt of the Holy family. Each section offers a reading from scripture, followed by a commentary, questions, ideas and activities for families to do together. The author was part of BRF’s Messy Church team and is passionate about the richness experienced when families talk about faith together; this book would make an excellent inexpensive pre-Christmas gift and would generate new ideas and conversations about the importance of celebrating the Nativity and what it means to us today.

Reviewed by SUE PIPER

Advent

 

The Art of Christmas

The Art of Christmas

Author Jane Williams
Publisher SPCK £9.99
Format pbk
ISBN 9780281086474

The distinguished theologian and writer, Jane Williams, has produced another helpful volume in SPCK’s series of booklets on classical and modern artworks to accompany the liturgical seasons. The Art of Christmas follows the author’s earlier offering The Art of Advent (2018), and similar works from the late and much-loved Wendy Beckett: The Art of Lent (2017); and The Art of Holy Week and Easter (2021, published posthumously). Both these authors have provided exceptional insights into great artworks and have related the art to biblical matters. Beckett is, perhaps, the greater expert on art history; Williams the more profound theologian. It matters little – all these delightful booklets provide great scope for personal meditation and deeper understanding of scripture through the inspiration of artistic masterworks. It is a joyful and highly collectable series.

The Art of Christmas is subtitled ‘Meditations on the Birth of Jesus’, and certainly there is strong emphasis on the nativity scenes as documented in Matthew and Luke. The holy family, the shepherds and the magi all feature in a variety of works. But Jane Williams is also at pains to take us beyond the birth of a baby in Bethlehem, and reminds us through wider scripture readings of the eternal meaning of the incarnation and its significance for our salvation. Thus, she provides allusions to Romans chapter 8 as well as John chapter 1. And, with a nod to prophecy, she relates Mary’s pregnancy thanksgiving in the Magnificat to Hannah’s prayer and subsequent psalm of joy (1 Sam. chapters 1 & 2), augmented by a moving and little known portrait of Hannah by the Dutch artist Jan Victors (1619-1679).

One of the strengths of the book is the way familiar artworks such as Botticelli’s Annunciation and The Mystical Nativity are balanced against the inspiration of lesser known works. For example, I was unfamiliar with the wonderful portrait of St Joseph with the Infant Christ by the Italian Baroque painter, Guido Reni (1575-1642). There is also a beautiful and intriguing and work by Gerhard von Hornthorst (1592-1656) on The Adoration of the Shepherds with exceptional use of light and shadow to show the infant Jesus as the light of the world. In summary, this is a book to treasure – and an ideal, thoughtful Christmas gift.

Reviewed by KATE BURTON

Advent

 

The Deep End (A journey with the Sunday Gospels in the Year of Luke)

The Deep End
(A journey with the Sunday Gospels in the Year of Luke)

Author Triona Doherty & Jane Mellett
Publisher Messenger Publications €14.95
Format pbk
ISBN 9781788125062

The foreword describes ‘The Deep End’ as an ‘Inspiring commentary on the Gospel reading of every Sunday of the year of St Luke’. Most but not all of the readings are taken from Luke’s Gospel. The authors’ base and ministry is Catholic.

The book starts with brief but helpful introductions to the person believed to be Luke and the principle of Lectio Divina; the latter is a useful reminder of how to read, reflect and meditate on any Bible reading. It is predictably and pragmatically divided into the liturgical seasons of the year, which includes a ‘Season of Creation’, feast days and ordinary time. There is an index of Scripture references, and the book refreshingly ends with ‘Endnotes’ (although printed in near-microscopic font). This is a useful list of references which encourages and helps the reader to explore further some of the book’s readings and quotations.

The layout of the book is uniform with each Sunday’s offering occupying two, side-by-side pages which certainly makes it easier to read. Each day’s entry begins with the reading and is followed in turn by a brief and sometimes contemporary commentary or reflection, a quotation (many by Pope Francis, others by people both well-known and unknown) that is considered relevant to the reading, and ends with a ‘Go Deeper’ section. This final section comprises of one or two questions which invites the reader to consider and reflect on the reading and apply its message to their personal experiences and spiritual growth. Going ‘deeper’, will always be relative to the individual reader but in my opinion, many of the questions in this ‘Go Deeper’ section lie in the shallow, rather than in the deep end of reflection and spiritual self-examination. However, the questions asked by the authors are clear, relevant and often challenging and merit thought and responses. This is a well-structured and very readable book which I feel sure will be a meaningful contribution for both Advent and throughout the year.

I would like to share one quote from the book because it is challenging and could be used as our spiritual introit into Advent. It is by Peter McVerry: ‘The peace promised by God does not come from accepting the world as it is… The Christian community was established by Jesus in order to show a broken world how to live as a new creation … The Christian community, by the way we live, love, care and share with each other, is called to say “No” to our world as it is and to say, “Yes” to the world as it should be.’

Reviewed by RICHARD APPLETON

Advent

 

In a Star-lit Stable

In a Star-lit Stable

Author Imogen Clout
Publisher FeedaRead.com Publishing, £6.99
Format pbk
ISBN 9781785101533 (2014)

The author of this collection of 12 short Christmas plays is a Reader in the diocese of Sheffield and she has been writing plays for her church to perform at Christmas since 1998. This means that the plays are tried and tested and they come with notes about performance space and costume. I liked the fact that many are adaptable so that many people (especially small children) can be included if available, but that a large cast is not necessary. The pieces are genuinely funny and energetic and are interwoven into specimen services. You could of course adapt the readings and hymns to suit your own taste and the musical talent available. Some of the plays are quite ambitious and would take a fair amount of rehearsal. Of this type, the one that appealed to me most was ‘There’s Always Room’ in which Mary and Joseph were disguised as homeless beggars sitting on the steps of the church asking for money as the congregation arrive. The shepherds appear as rather drunken young men causing a disturbance in the car park outside and the Magi are seated in the congregation dressed as Muslims. Other ideas include the cast dressed as conventional crib figures who come to life between the readings, and a squads of angels planning military style operations to bring the good news to earth that go wrong in various ways. Provided you do not charge an entrance fee for your service, all the plays reproduced are free of copyright charges.

Reviewed by KIRSTY ANDERSON

Advent

 

Seeing Luke Differently

Seeing Luke Differently

Author Graham Turner
Publisher OMG.TXTS £5
Format pbk
ISBN 9798736392629

Readers seeking a provocative companion for their Year C journey through Luke will find Graham Turner’s book of ‘Reflections on spirituality and social justice from the third Gospel’ reliably challenging throughout. It offers a century of reflections on Sunday reading length sections of the whole Gospel, voiced as prayerful conversations with Jesus, each intended to inform private devotions, public intercessions or sermon writing.

Although the book reads Luke sequentially, it sets out to disrupt its narrative drive, the feeling that, as Turner puts it in his introduction ‘the words pass over me because “I know what happens next.”’ The form of each reflection’s interaction with the Gospel narrative varies, Turner sometimes offering his own free but direct translation (his version of the Magnificat is an example) but sometimes only alluding briefly to the substance of what are major events for Luke: ‘Remind us we are fickle and liable to betray you at any moment’ is all we hear of Peter’s denial of Christ. This creates another form of disruption, the disruption of the expectation that the reflections will be similar in character.

The disruption of all kinds of established expectations and assumptions is, of course, a key strategy of many contemporary approaches to reading the Bible and other literary and cultural products. Turner validates approaching Luke in this way by emphasizing Jesus’ own disruptiveness, and what he understands as the corresponding need for us all to pray, reflect and live ‘differently’. Importantly, the premise of the book’s title depends on its readers not having already learnt such disruptive responses and behaviours, and they are always implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, constructed as constrained by more conservative attitudes. For example, responding to the story of the widow’s mite (Luke 21.1-4), Turner writes: ‘For too long we have romanticised about this poor woman . . . we are blind to our affluent perspective,’ appealing to Jesus to ‘dismantle our systems which rob the poor . . . and establish justice . . . in place of over-extended piety.’ In the many confessional prayers Turner offers, ‘we’ are typically identified with the complacent ‘religionism’ of the Pharisees and other characters whose lives need to be disrupted, rather than, for example, the eager and committed, if sometimes misguided and naïve, disciples Luke writes about as already living lives disrupted by Christ. Some may feel this does a disservice to their own committed and disrupted positions, however these may be limited by sin, and that it somewhat undermines the joy inherent in the Good News.

The disruption Turner calls for most frequently is that of ‘non-violent defiant protest…against the status quo…where a minority of the population enjoyed the majority of the wealth at the expense of the many’. This is how he characterises Christ’s entry into Jerusalem (Luke 19.28-40). The protests he calls on us to make are to defy all forms of ‘exploitation, oppression and injustice’, and in various places, Turner is explicit about challenging imperialism, elitist capitalism, prejudice of all kinds, and arrogant ecological destruction. He sometimes stretches the Gospel text to do this, for example, reading the widow’s tenacity in the parable of the widow and the judge (Luke 18.1-8) as an inspiration for our own tenacity ‘in fighting for social, racial and climate justice’. Readers may find themselves wondering which disruptions belong to Jesus, which to Luke, and which to Turner’s own very contemporary agenda for social justice and change. This, however, may be a response to a key effect of the book’s intentional provocativeness.

Reviewed by JOHN MOSS

Advent