I love Christmas, and opening Nathan Brown’s book, Advent: Hearing the Good News in the Story of Jesus’ Birth, reading each page, is like opening a carefully wrapped Christmas present, undoing the gift card attached with ribbon and bow, folding back the bright cellophane wrapping and lifting the lid off a curious little box containing the Gift itself. The gift in this case is, of course, the Christ.
In Advent: Hearing the Good News in the Story of Jesus’ Birth, Nathan, a former Signs of the Times Australia/New Zealand editor and colleague (so I’ll call him by his first name), embroiders the warp and weave of the Nativity story with personal anecdote and experience to produce what is among his best books to date.
It is creative in both content and structure, it has a point to make and a clear purpose, takes us by surprise along the way, reveals something that is new, and is constant and undeviating in its advent theme. Which, repeated numerous times, is clearly this: What happened at Christmas all those 2000-and-something years ago in an insignificant town of Palestine that holds such significance for today and the future? It’s around this theme that a cast of Advent characters, a wide range of Christian concepts and some deceptively deep theology circulate.
But what’s in for me (and you)?
Well, a lot as it turns out. And especially so if, like me, you’re something of a Christmasphile (is that a thing?) and looking for something about Christmas that is a little more worthwhile than a mere summer “good read”.
Like those “12 Days of Christmas” about which we sing without any idea of their meaning, Advent is a structured on the 31 days of Christmas; an evenly paced, evenly spaced introduction to the story of Jesus’ birth, the hinge of history. Advent mimics the structure, giving a rhythmic four pages of content per chapter across the 31 days of December.
It is possibly unique in this, but you needn’t take a month to read it, devoting 10 minutes a day. Rather, you might simply devour it in a single sitting for, despite its breadth and depth, it is eminently readable and, unlike your heavy Christmas dinner, it’s completely digestible in small bites, even for those with little biblical knowledge, seeking to establish what actually happened at Christmas, and why.
That is not say that Advent is a superficial read; its brevity (four pages per chapter) and overall economy (just 131 pages), contain some very deep concepts, but they’re depths that are easily plumbed given Nathan’s facility with words and ideas. The chapter titles spell what those bite-sized pieces are—the familiar Christmas themes of “Peace”, “Love” and “Lowly”; “(Good) News” and “Glory”; climaxing on Day 25 with “Joy” and ending a few chapters later with “Hope”.
Each of these ideas is gently teased out, illustrated and supported, taking in the long historical arcs of the Old and New Testament timelines, from prophecy to present, along the way dispelling the myths, discarding the fake and the fables, and highlighting the real Jesus.
Assisting Nathan are his personal experiences of three visits to the Holy Land, acknowledging a cynical predisposition that caused him to doubt the point of such a trip, and admitting a change of attitude that resulted from his experiences there. Having visited a couple of times myself, I understand this completely. It wasn’t so much the veracity of the sites but the stories, he says, that gave him the perspective from which he penned much of Advent—the Shepherds Field outside of Bethlehem, for example—and which adds immeasurably to one’s understanding of the advent story.
It is this, the wider context of the advent, that he presents, along with its unlikely cast of characters, main and supporting. These include the usual Christmas pantomime personalities of King Herod, the Magi, the shepherds, prophets and priests, Joseph and Mary of course, and a cameo by her cousin Elizabeth.
And it’s to the story of what happened at Christmas that Advent returns time and again. Everyone knows that “something happened”, but exactly what is the question that Advent answers. And apparently, it’s a lot more than you (and I) thought, convincingly presented, annotated and documented by commentators, ancient and modern, biblical and beyond, among them some of Nathan’s favourite authors.
One that caught me was a humorous anecdote from C S Lewis’s life, its humour I found particularly appealing, who overheard a woman on the bus exclaim upon passing by a Nativity scene in front of a church: “Oh Lor’! They bring religion into everything. Look‚ they’re dragging it even into Christmas now!” It’s such ignorance that Nathan works hard to dispel.
What do we learn from Advent that’s new? That will depend on where you are in your journey of faith. And were I to tell you, then there’d be little point in reading it for yourself! But there’s plenty.
Did Advent contain any surprises? Well, yes. I was taken by Nathan’s common touch, as he is more often a quite a serious and analytical writer, which is what I was expecting to find. It is the absence of the abstract and “cerebral” and the presence of its everyday language and concrete real-life illustrations that help make it so readable.
Personally, I found it delightful, informative and interesting from beginning to end. I love the narrative in literature, moving along a timeline, with the ultimate resolution of a seemingly intractable problem by or for a person (in this case our world) at its climax and conclusion.
But will it touch your heart? Is it likely to change you, or at least how you think about Christmas? Of course. The story of Jesus’ birth and death (the latter explored in the post-Christmas chapters of Advent) cannot help but do so—if you’ll let it. After all, it is the greatest story ever told.
Lee Dunstan served as editor of Signs of the Times for 25 years between 1993 and 2018. He currently heads up Christian Services for the Blind and Hearing Impaired. A version of this article first appeared on the Signs of the Times Australia/New Zealand website and is republished with permission.