An important way of entering into Advent and nurturing excitement for Christmas is by having good literature on hand, for both our mind and our imagination. If you want some advice, forget the Christmas TV binge, get the Christmas shopping out of the way, and pick up one of these books to prepare yourself to celebrate this central feast of the liturgical calendar.

C.S. Lewis, ‘God in the Dock’ (1970)

C.S. Lewis is a household name for many reasons, but in his collection of essays, God in the Dock, he has a couple that are relevant to Christmas. The first one is What Christmas Means To Me, in which he complains about the rampant commercialism of modern Christmas. We’re familiar with this critique today but bear in mind Lewis published this originally in 1957, so for him the commercialism was still in its early days. What he referred to as ‘the commercial racket’, a condition of feeling the obligation to buy useless gadgets and cards for friends, acquaintances, and even people we don’t like, is a modern one ‘forced upon us by shopkeepers’ and gives far more pain than pleasure. The only thing it is good for is trade, he says, and it is symptomatic of a deeper condition whereby ‘everyone lives by persuading everyone else to buy things.’ It’s a grumpily-written essay, that much is obvious, but if you’re searching for a deeper questioning of Christmas, it’s a start.

The other essay worth reading in this volume is Myth Became Fact. What happens in the Incarnation, and subsequently the death and resurrection of Jesus, is the historical realisation of the mythology people so often accuse Christianity of being. ‘We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology,’ he wrote.

We must not be nervous about ‘parallels’ and ‘Pagan Christs’: they ought to be there – it would be a stumbling block if they weren’t. We must not, in false spirituality, withhold our imaginative welcome.’

In other words, it’s okay for the Gospel to resemble ‘mythology’ because what God does in Jesus is bring mythology into the universe of fact. Both of these essays are short – and there are many other wonderful essays in the volume – but they’re a great place to start.

A Christmas Carol
"A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens was first published in 1843 www.flickr.com/photos/vernonbarford/

Charles Dickens, ‘A Christmas Carol’ (1843)

If you’re anything like me and (prior to very recently) you’ve only watched the Donald Duck version of A Christmas Carol, why not make a change this year and read the original? Charles Dickens isn’t exactly known for short novels, but this is quite short and very readable for those unfamiliar with him. Following on from Lewis’ essay about Christmas as a ‘commercial racket’, it makes a profound point about the kinds of things we become preoccupied with in life. When Scrooge’s old business partner Jacob Marley, now dead seven years, appears to him as a ghost, he is wrapped in ethereal chains that are made of ‘cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel.’ When Marley speaks to Scrooge about it, he says:

I wear the chain I forged in life,’ replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?”’

Donald Duck is great, but Charles Dickens is better.

Dwight Longenecker, ‘Mystery of the Magi: The Quest to Identify the Three Wise Men’ (2017)

In this book, Dwight Longenecker claims that our understanding of the Magi is rooted in history in the same way the story of Camelot is rooted in history. That is to say: not very much. Over time, the scarce details in Matthew’s Gospel about the ‘three wise men’ have been elaborated and embellished and embroidered to such an extent that we can no longer read the Gospel without the interpretation of a primary school Christmas production informing us. This book is a personal quest to understand who they are and where they came from. Even though we might not think this topic important, Longenecker goes to great lengths to demonstrate why history matters. People far too often dismiss Christianity as fairy tales and legends, but the historical basis of our beliefs is vital because without them Christianity is nothing at all. Longenecker provides a convincing basis for a historical understanding of the Magi and their presence in the Scriptures.

Pope Benedict XVI, ‘Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives’ (2012)

This tiny addition to Pope Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth series was a welcome one. The first two volumes were powerful enough, since they were not only the product of Joseph Ratzinger’s mind as a scholar, but also a product of the heart, of his own search for the face of God in Jesus. This volume he described as an ‘antechamber’, a small reflection on the infancy narratives that draws on the best of scholarship and spiritual reflection to understand those stories on a deeper level.

Understanding the Bible is two-fold, Pope Benedict says in the introduction. Firstly we must understand the original, historical meaning of the text; then we must understand where we fit into it and what the text is saying to us in the present moment.

As usual, Pope Benedict writes with a simplicity and beauty that is unmatched in previous Pontiffs, and he brings out dimensions of the story you might not have seen before.

From his discussion of the Virgin birth:

What we read here is an utterly humble story, yet one whose very humility gives it a disturbing grandeur … Perhaps one could say that humanity’s silent and confusing dreams of a new beginning came true in this event – in a reality such that only God could create.’

Dietrich von Hildebrand, ‘Jaws of Death: Gate of Heaven’ (1991)

The famous German philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand wrote this when he 86-years-old and completed it in just two weeks. This might seem a bit of a side-step, since the book doesn’t concern the Incarnation or Christmas, but it is a profound meditation on death. Even though Advent is the beginning of the new liturgical year, thematically the readings of Scripture point towards the end of the world in Christ’s coming, but also the end of our world in death itself. Because of this, Advent is also a great opportunity to deepen our reflection on the nature of death and be ready for it.

A fierce opponent of Nazi ideology, von Hildebrand was famously labelled as ‘enemy number one’ by the Gestapo and had to flee to several countries in Europe before finally settling in America. In this book, more personal than most, von Hildebrand talks movingly about what it was like to lose his first wife, about the nature of love, and about the way in which Christ has transformed death to be a gateway to heaven. The language of the Gospels that are seemingly about the end of the world – and about the coming of the bridegroom, Jesus – are also, in the Christian view, about death, and von Hildebrand beautifully brings this out.

Death becomes now the hour of our encounter with the Holy of Holies, Jesus Christ, in whose heart the fullness of the Godhead dwells. Death means the encounter at last with the God-Man, the Beloved of our soul, the One for whom we have been created … Only through the light of Christ can death lose its dread and become the hour of the soul’s marriage with its beloved Jesus.’