One of my favorite Christmas memories from childhood was of eagerly waking each day in December to pull apart the tiny perforated doors on the paper Advent calendar my mom hung in the kitchen of our cozy Oregon ranch. Even though Mom carefully re-used the same calendar each year, my brother and I fought over whose turn it was to open the doors revealing a star here, an angel there, or a Wiseman on a camel.
In my own home, we fill a wooden Advent calendar with treats, celebrating each day with foil wrapped chocolates as we count down to Christmas. We also enjoy reading an Advent devotional each Sunday. Last year was Ann Voskamp’s, “The Greatest Gift,” a devotional aimed at weary moms. This year the bestselling author has one for the whole family, “Unwrapping the Greatest Gift: A Family Celebration of Christmas.”
It may not be Thanksgiving, but Advent is just around the corner. You’re likely to find a selection of seasonal devotionals at your local bookstore – even here in skeptical New England. I’ll be reading, “Light Upon Light,” a quiet, contemplative literary guide to prayer for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany compiled by Sarah Arthur (Paraclete Press 2014).
This lovely little book, printed by a Benedictine community in Cape Cod, combines the prayers from early saints, Scripture, and words of celebrated authors (from obscure fourth century poets to Charles Dickens and T.S. Eliot). Included are writers well known for their Christian faith and those who didn’t espouse any. It is for those seeking to escape the frenzy that so easily overwhelms the season. “Perhaps it is our fear of stillness, of quiet, that drives us to anything but the ‘silent night’ of Christmas: we do not want to know what we might discover in reflection,” Arthur writes in her expressive introduction. “More likely it is a consumer economy that thrives on a relentless pace: slow and contemplative people are not shopping people; silence does not sell.”
Themes include reflections on brokenness, loss, and the outcast in need of rest, as well as why Christmas falls during the darkest time of the year, “Not only has God’s chosen One appeared among us, blazing like the sun,” Arthur writes, “but this One is God himself, bound up in our human mess, taking on our human suffering, living and dying as one of us.”
Or as the 19th century English priest John Henry Newman wrote in a prayer included in week three of this book,
“Lead, Kindly Light, amid the circling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home—
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene,–one step enough for me.”
As winter wraps us in cold dark and vacant lots fill with evergreens and stores flash slick ads, Arthur’s collection provides a restful way to reflect on that light.