If you had to go shopping at all this past weekend, you would not be blamed for thinking that Christmas is a day from today. Department stores seem to set up for the secular Feast of the Nativity around the end of September before we’ve even carved our Jack O’ Lanterns and it surely can be a tad bit worrisome for a few of us. Moreover, they’re not completely wrong.
In that spirit, we’d like to give you five books that will assist you to end your Advent well while also giving your Christmas celebrations a deeper meaning.
1. Meditations for Advent by Bp. Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet
Advent is the time to get our hearts ready for Christ and the celebration around his Nativity. In our modern era, the secular celebration has overtaken both our own feast and Advent. The best you can do for yourself is slow down and bring your own heart to a mode of penance and anticipation before Midnight Christmas Mass.
One of the best books to fulfill this is, without a doubt, Bp. Bossuet’s Meditations for Advent.
In his own time, and even up to the early 20th century, Bp. Bossuet was regarded as one of the finest orators and his sermons were often transformed by such greats as Msgr. Ronald Knox. In this small book, carefully changed from the original French by Dr. Blum, the good bishop gives small meditations that perfectly complement the Advent season.
There are 40 meditations and each one is between 3-5 pages, meaning that you can read them in about 20 minutes in the morning or at lunch. If you want to do one a day, you can start this Sunday and wrap it up by Christmas. You can also skip around and make your meditation schedule. Either way, you’ll understand the Old Testament promises of Christ, St John the Baptist, St. Elizabeth, and the Holy Virgin as you slowly get prepared. Give yourself 20 minutes a day and you will find you are more meditative and prayerful.
2. The Everlasting Man by G.K. Chesterton
A mass of legend and literature, which increases and will never end has repeated and rung the conversions on that single paradox; that the hands that had made the sun and stars were too small to reach the huge heads of the cattle. Upon this paradox, we might almost say upon this jest, all the literature of our faith is established. -G.K. Chesterton
It began as an answer to H.G. Wells’ small outline of history, but it expanded into one of the most brilliant apologetically texts of the last century. I partially owe my own conversion to this book, and so do many, many others.
Chesterton looked to the history of the world seen through artists, philosophers, and storytellers. In his two-part thesis, he begins part one by looking at the figure of the “caveman” and moves on through history, giving us a rich sketch of the pagan and Jewish worlds who were waiting in anticipation. In Advent, we too are awaiting and Chesterton is the best wordsmith to make us feel that same sense as our ancestors.
His beginning of chapter two begins with “The God in the Cave” and it is one of the richest and wonderful texts showing the fulfillment of Christmas. We find that not only did Christ come for the philosophers and poets, but also for the shepherds, whom Chesterton identifies as the keepers of old and new traditions.
If you start with the first half for Advent you will be glad to read the second part for the full celebration of Christmas and you will have an idea of the fullness of the Birth of Christ and all the joys it gives.
3. On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius
What is a better way to comprehend and get ready for Christmas than a work by one of the great Doctors of the Church? This work may strike some as more scholarly or to require too much concern, but it is worth your time.
St. Athanasius was embroiled in the great theological debates of the Early Church, particularly relating to the divinity of Christ. In the fourth century, the Arians asserted a belief that Christ was a secondary creation and not equal to the Father, therefore not believing the Trinity along with the full Divinity of Christ. Such discussions are old but are always still under the surface of new heresies and St. Athanasius gives the strongest answer, giving the whole Church the confidence that Christ is truly God incarnate.
Most importantly, Christmas is the celebration of the Incarnation that Athanasius defends and is also the central theology of our Catholic faith. Sometimes called the Scandal of the Incarnation, this central dogma is why we comfortably set up the Nativity set, portray Christ as a baby being held by a woman and are still able to call this little child the King of Kings. If this seems a lot to take in at times, that is good and St. Athanasius will assist you to define and defend this grand doctrine. After reading his defense, you will more confidently proclaim “Christ the Savior is born!”
4. Sermons for Christmas and Epiphany by St. Augustine
Awake, mankind! For your sake, God has become a man. Awake, you who sleep, rise up from the dead, and Christ will edify you. I tell you again: for your sake, God became a man. -St. Augustine
Another Doctor of the Church joins us, this time from the Latin West. St. Augustine needs no introduction for his writings have been debated and celebrated since he first converted and began dictating his brilliant words. Rather you had to read his Confessions in high school or college, but now you can see how he spoke of the great feasts of the Holiday season.
The powerful words of St. Augustine illuminate the miracle that is Christmas and The Epiphany. We can oftentimes take it for granted that God became human and was born of the Virgin Mary, but Augustine brings to our mind that such an event is unique and it ought to always fill our hearts with joy. While he can, at times, be complex in his thinking, these sermons were for those under his pastoral care and Augustine makes the deep theological truths quite accessible.
Each sermon is an appropriate length to add to your times of meditation in prayer, even as some reading right before Mass. The best is to start on Christmas Eve and to continue to read each sermon through the whole liturgical season of Christmas and try to focus on the urgings of Augustine to remember what it is that we celebrate. His reflections on grace will especially make you more thankful for the miracle of Christ’s birth and what it means for you and the whole world.
5. The World’s First Love by Ven. Fulton J. Sheen
The Apostle of Prime Time was renowned for his wit, careful teachings and war personality that had whole families come around the television set to hear his jokes and lessons. What few know is that he was also clear and informative in his own writings as he was in person.
The World’s First Love brings together Sheen’s scholarly research and meditations on the Virgin Mary and brings together a portrait of the Mother of God that loves the world and is beloved by a great number of humanity. At Christmas, you can see the image of Mary in many amazing places, even in the Nativity set of your Protestant friends. She is an image of awe and wonders and Sheen is the right man to instruct us on her role in our salvation.
It is always a delight to read Ven. Sheen, but here he particularly shines by explaining to us why Mary is worthy of respect and honor. If you are not familiar with Marian devotionals, this is a fine place to begin.
Also, I have to suggest The Life of Christ by Fulton J. Sheen. While usually read around Easter, this book shines the light on the life of Our Lord from his nativity to his resurrection. With keen research, the venerable archbishop brings the life and times of Christ to life with stunning information. It is perfect for Christmas or any time you need to think about Our Lord.