Watch for the Light: an Advent devotional for adults

An Advent devotional is a great way to enter into the rhythms of the season. One of our favorites for adults is Watch for the Light (Orbis Books 2001), an anthology of reflections on the Advent and Christmas seasons from some of Christianity's best-known writers and thinkers, from classical to contemporary. The readings can be followed sequentially, starting with November 24 (before Advent begins) and continuing through January 7, the day after Epiphany.


The readings are arranged, for the most part, to capture the themes of each season. On November 28, we find Henri Nouwen's "Waiting for God," a beautiful meditation on the expectant character of Advent and the "waiting people" of the Nativity story. In "The Penitential Season" (December 7), William Stringfellow highlights Advent’s eschatological themes, grounded in John the Baptist's cries for repentance.

Also in this vein are John Howard Yoder's "The Original Revolution" (December 11) and Dietrich Bonhoeffer's "The Coming of Jesus in Our Midst" (December 21). Both essays remind us that the good news of God also means judgment on the existing order of things. Bonhoeffer's famous maxim that Christ's arrival is not only "glad tidings" but "first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience," deserves our sustained reflection during Advent.

Many of the readings focus on the mystery of the Incarnation. Christmas is the radical, even absurd idea that the kingdom of heaven broke into earth "not with the crushing impact of unbearable glory," as Brennan Manning puts it in "Shipwrecked at the Stable" (December 20), but enfleshed in the form of a baby, weak and vulnerable. "The Ancient of Days has become an infant," says 4th-century bishop St. John Chrysostom ("The Mystery," December 25). God assumed our body so we could be "capable of his word"; He took our flesh and gave us His Spirit. C.S. Lewis calls the Incarnation “The Grand Miracle” (December 28). It’s "the chapter on which the whole plot turns.” In Christ, says Lewis, “God really has dived down into the bottom of creation, and has come up bringing the whole redeemed nature on His shoulders.”

Christmas is the radical, even absurd idea that the kingdom of heaven broke into earth not with the crushing impact of unbearable glory, but enfleshed in the form of a baby, weak and vulnerable.

The Incarnation reminds us, too, that the good news of Christmas is first and foremost for the poor. German feminist Dorothee Soelle calls this “The Christmas Gospel” (December 27). “Christ was born into a little people,” says Peruvian priest Gustavo Guitiérrez (December 29). "[H]e lived with the poor and emerged from among them to inaugurate a kingdom of love and justice.”

One of our favorite insights in the book is English mystic Evelyn Underhill’s delightful yet pointed metaphor of the animals at the stable:

[H]uman nature is like a stable inhabited by the ox of passion and the ass of prejudice; animals which take up a lot of room and which I suppose most of us are feeding in the quiet. And it there between them, pushing them out, that Christ must be born and in their very manger he must be laid – and they will be the first to fall on their knees before him. Sometimes Christians seem far nearer to those animals than to Christ in his simple poverty, self-abandoned to God.

If we have any criticism of this excellent volume, it’s this: we wish the timing of the readings better coincided with the seasons. For example, Emmy Arnold’s “Christmas Joy” appears on December 12, relatively early in Advent. Ernesto Cardenal’s somewhat crass “The Wise Men” and T.S. Eliot’s lovely poem “The Journey of the Magi” appear on January 3 and 4, a few days early for Epiphany. And Thomas Merton’s end-time reflection “The Time of No Room” on the seventh day of Christmas (December 31) would have been more appropriate in early Advent.

Still, we highly recommend Watch for the Light. The selections are broad, the insights are deep, and they will undoubtedly enrich your journey through the holiday seasons. For an Advent devotional for kids, check out Antonie Schneider's Advent Storybook: 24 Stories to Share Before Christmas, which we review here.