One of the great practices many undertake during Lent is reading a spiritual book over the course of the penitential season. These could be lives of the saints, works of spirituality or meditations, scriptural studies, or books about the Passion of Our Lord. Like Lent, Advent is a season of preparation and penance, one where our thoughts turn towards a great feast; for Lent it’s Easter, and for Advent it’s Christmas. Since both seasons serve similar purposes, it makes sense to do spiritual reading in Advent as well as Lent.
So here are four recommended books (and four more related titles) that can help prepare readers for the Christmas season, while also helping us to continue to celebrate it. This is not an exhaustive list, of course, and other people might have other books to add, or might make their own list.
1. Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives by Pope Benedict XVI
The third and last volume of his magnificent work examining the life of Christ, The Infancy Narratives is perhaps the most accessible volume in the trilogy. As with anything written by Pope Benedict, the work contains great study, reflection, and verbal skill. Much is packed into a few sentences, and though it takes only a short time to read (it’s only a little over 100 pages), it necessitates deeper reflection. Particularly interesting (and typical of Benedict’s previous works, both prior to and after his election to the papacy in 2005) is how Benedict incorporates non-religious works into his reflection, such as the Eclogues of Virgil, providing a universal view of a world preparing for the Messiah.
Want more? Read The Blessing of Christmas by Joseph Ratzinger
This is a collection of homilies and reflections given by Pope Benedict before he became pope. They offer a more spiritual view of the topics covered in The Infancy Narratives, and since they were written for more public consumption (one might say), they are more easily accessible for the lay reader. Plus it has nice pictures, which help with the meditation.
2. The Infancy Narratives in Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-3.
Why not go to the source? The Christmas story comes from these two Gospels. They are intimate, personal, dramatic, and beautiful accounts. They are deceptively short, and one is tempted to simply rush through them and look for another literary meal. However, I recommend reading the Bible passages slowly. The stories surrounding Christ’s birth in the Gospels constantly refer back to the Old Testament. As a meditative practice, I suggest not only reading the Gospel account, but also all of the cross-referenced passages in the Old Testament, usually included as a sort of footnote in your Bible. Read the context. If a prophet is quoted, read the whole passage in the prophet. If you come across a king you don’t recognize, read his whole story. They are the ancestors of Jesus. If you really want to know someone, you learn about his family. If you want to know about Christ and enter into a deep, personal relationship with Him, you need to read His story.
Want more? Read The Day Christ was Born by Jim Bishop
Unlike his other historical books, which give an hour by hour account of events surrounding a historical event, Jim Bishop’s reflection on the birth of Christ is told like a story. He includes personal details about the life of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, capturing well the drama surrounding the coming of Christ. If you want the Gospel stories written almost like a novel, you’ve come to the right place.
Few writers can balance the road between scholarly and popular writing; Scott Hahn does this in spades, and this recent book of his is no exception. In examining the Christmas story, Dr. Hahn draws from Scripture, the Church Fathers, and recent theologians, like Pope Benedict XVI. He goes through the story not chronologically, but thematically, each chapter a reflection. Mary and St. Joseph appear as the heroes; King Herod comes across as the villain. The most intriguing parts of the book are where Hahn’s historical discussion intersects with his spiritual reflection, such as when discussing the Star of Bethlehem (Hahn suggests, along with many Church Fathers, that the “star” was actually an angel). In a relatively short space, Hahn can condense a complex story, such as the one surrounding the birth of Christ, into manageable and meaningful portions.
Want more? Read A Father Who Keeps His Promises by Scott Hahn
Hahn discusses one of his favorite topics: the history of the Israelites through the covenants God made with His people. Even though this isn’t primarily a Christmas book, it does connect with the Christmas story. This is a great book to read along with the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1. The focus of the book is the six covenants God made with Israel, but the rest of the Old Testament fits into the narrative, providing readers with a sort of prologue to the story of Christmas.
4. The Everlasting Man by G. K. Chesterton
Though not strictly a Christmas book, this great work by the Catholic English essayist does present world history from a Christo-centric perspective, meaning that the Incarnation is the focal point of history. As such, Chesterton’s reflection places Christmas in the context of world history. Events that seem unconnected to the God in the Cave, such as the Punic Wars, where Rome defeated the disturbing Carthaginian Empire, are shown as preparation for the coming of Christ. The effects of the Incarnation are likewise addressed, for one cannot discuss a world transforming event without discussing the effects of the transformation.
Want more? Read The Founding of Christendom by Warren H. Carroll
Also not technically a Christmas book. Taking a page (actually a couple pages, since he quotes it frequently) from The Everlasting Man, Dr. Carroll’s History of Christendom series presents in six volumes a well-researched and compellingly written history of our salvation from the time of Abraham through the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI. This first volume in the series covers the Ancient Israelites, Greeks, and Romans, as well as the life of Christ and the first three centuries of the Church, culminating in the conversion of Constantine. If you want a good historical review of what St. Paul meant when he described the time of Christ’s birth as “the fullness of time” (Gal 4:4), this would be the book to read.
Advent is a time of preparation. As we use these darkening days to reflect on the coming Light of the World, let us open our hearts to hear Him speak to us. Let us reflect on His birth as we prepare for the season that celebrates it. We are drawn to love Christ; what better way to love Him than by learning about Him?