Finding God in Advent and Christmas (Books, Movies, and Music)
By Anna Keating
It’s hard to have a meaningful Advent or Christmas, when so many pressures bombard us this time of the year: pressures to shop, achieve, and entertain.
Sometimes I just want to sit down, watch a good movie, read something inspiring, or sip a hot drink while watching it snow. Often, the perfect end to a long week is listening to music while doing the dishes, or curling up with my kids on the living room couch.
Grace filled moments aren’t confined to church, and neither are Catholics.
A field guide to the daily acts that make up a Catholic life, can give the impression that the majority of our lives, as Catholics, are spent in private or public devotion (of the formal variety). Of course, prayer, liturgy, and the sacraments anchor our lives in something greater than ourselves, but the majority of our waking hours are spent doing the same kinds of mundane tasks that all people do: working, taking care of kids, running errands, doing chores.
And yet, it can be here too, that faith-filled moments arise, even if it’s just singing a Christmas carol with your kids, or going to a movie and spending time with a good friend. You don’t have to be in prayer, or at church, to be connecting with God in some way. People experience joy and grace, love and mercy in unexpected places: on the train, reading a magazine, in bed.
As Pope Francis has said, “All of life is an encounter with Jesus: in prayer, when we go to Mass, when we do good, when we visit the sick, when we help a poor person, when we think of others, when we aren’t selfish, when we’re friendly . . . in these things we always meet Jesus. And this is the journey of life: walking onward to meet Jesus.”
Consider what St. Ignatius of Loyola who founded the Society of Jesus in 1540 told the first Jesuits. He said, “find God in all things.” In hindsight, we often see that God meets us where we are: shoveling snow, wiping runny noses, even watching TV. Catholics believe that God freely enters into the world, in the Incarnation and in the Eucharist, out of love for us.
The sweetest, most unexpected moment of grace last year, happened outside the supermarket when my son asked me if we could give money to an older man who was standing with a sign that said, “In Need of Work.” My preschool age son handed the money out his car window to the man, who took it and said, “God bless you, son” and then I heard my three year old reply, “God bless you, sir.”
The most grace-filled moment of your year, might have been watching a movie with your dad, who has dementia, but still loves and remembers, “Diehard.”
In this way, Christ-haunted moments aren’t confined to church, and neither are Catholics. We’re supposed to leave the Mass glorifying God with our ordinary lives. As Fr. Alexander Schmemann once wrote, “He is the Savior of the world, not from the world.”
We should be enjoying the beautiful, interesting and good things the world has to offer, even if they aren’t from an explicitly religious source, or come from a perspective quite different from our own. Novels, like Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, written for a general audience, often inform and engage our faith as much or more than any explicitly religious work.
Even forms of popular entertainment, which explore the nature of sin, such as the television show, Breaking Bad, can, often, inform our faith, by investigating what a life of individualistic, relativism might look like. The Screwtape Letters was one of C.S. Lewis’ most popular novels because in it he wrote about virtue and vice, in an accessible and entertaining way, from the perspective of two devils.
We lead lives both ordinary and extraordinary, both in the world, and not of it. And every year, we want, all of us, to have a meaningful Advent, but we wonder, “What can I do with my precious free time, besides the obvious (praying the Advent wreath, reading the Bible, or going to Mass) in order to make that happen?”
You might want to enter into the mystery and paradox of the Advent season, “a virgin will conceive and bear a child (Is. 7:14)”, “the wolf will lie down with the lamb” (Is. 11:6-7) by curling up with a good movie, dancing while you do the dishes, or reading before bed. In the spirit of finding God in all things, we recommend a few books, movies, albums for Advent and Christmas.
Books for Advent and Christmas:
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
The cruel miser, Ebeneezer Scrooge, loves money and hates his fellow man, until one Christmas when he is visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future, and learns the importance of kindness and goodwill toward all. A Victorian classic and a good one to read aloud with older kids.
The Reed of God by Caryll Houselander
A little book of meditations on Mary and the Incarnation and what it all means for our ordinary lives, written by a 20th century mystic.
Selections from the sermons and writings of the 20th century martyr, St. Oscar Romero, who became an outspoken defender of El Salvador’s oppressed. Romero often reflects on the mystery of the Incarnation and why God chose to be poor.
The poem “Advent Credo” by Dan Berrigan from the book The World Made Flesh
We often fall into despair about the world and feel hopeless in the face of all its suffering. Fr. Berrigan’s poem reminds us of the great power and hope of the Christmas season.
An Adult Christ at Christmas: Essays on the Three Biblical Christmas Stories by Raymond C. Brown, SS
Father Brown helps the reader understand how the infancy narratives reveal the whole of the Gospels. These are not sweet fairytales separate from the grim realities of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection, but the very foundation of the Easter mysteries.
A Coming Christ in Advent by Raymond C. Brown SS
This devotional book invites the reader into deeper reflection with his meditation on the scriptural accounts of the Annunciation, and the Canticles of Mary and Simeon.
Movies for Advent and Christmas:
Millions is a morality tale about a seven year-old British boy named Damian who is enthralled with the lives of the saints. One day, Damian finds a bag full of money, and believing it is from God, tries to do good with it, while keeping it a secret from his recently widowed father. All the while he is being harassed by his older brother Anthony who wants to spend all the money on himself, and hunted by the thief who stole the money in the first place. Millions is a sweet film about how money can be a force for good in the world but can also make everything worse.
This movie was released in 1946 but feels contemporary. George Bailey played by Jimmy Stewart is beat down by life’s responsibilities and disappointments and decides to take his own life. The film opens with a conversation between God and St. Joseph regarding George. God decides to send an amateur angel, Clarence, to try and save him. Clarence shows George what the world would be like, had he never been born, and he returns home with renewed gratitude for his family and friends. If you last saw this film when you were a child, watch it again. Its profundity might surprise you.
Directed by Christian Carion, this movie was nominated for best foreign language film at both the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes in 2005. It tells the true story of the Christmas Eve truce of 1914. In the midst of the brutal hand to hand combat of WWI, German, French, and Scottish troops, who had previously been killing one another, as they had been ordered to do, laid down their weapons, for a day in order to celebrate the birth of Jesus, The Prince of Peace. They ate and sang together. A priest said Mass. They even played a game of soccer. All were punished for fraternizing with the enemy, and most would die in the battles to come, but for a night and a day, it was Christmas. This film brings to life what it says in Proverbs 25:21, “If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.” The film tells the stories of the men on the front lines, all of them decent, despite being on opposite sides of the battle. For a moment these brave young soldiers followed Jesus’ seemingly impossible command to love their enemies, even when religious leaders, were telling them to do so was treason.
A Charlie Brown Christmas
The animated television special, A Charlie Brown Christmas, based on the comic strip Peanuts by Charles M. Schulz is a surprisingly moving classic. Schulz insisted that real children voice his characters, that the laugh track be replaced by a jazz score, and that the story end with the Biblical account of the Christmas story. The show debuted in 1965 and continues to be enjoyed by kids and adults alike.
The Nativity Story directed by Catherine Hardwicke, and starring Keisha Castle-Hughes (Whale Rider) as Mary, and Oscar Isaac, as Joseph, premiered in 2006 in Vatican City. The film is a lovely retelling of the gospel story with greater development of the character of Joseph. In many ways Joseph is the hero of the film, a good man who chooses to love and protect Mary and Jesus at tremendous personal cost. This is a good film for older kids and adults.
Night of the Hunter
This film was released in 1965 and is in many ways a Christmas movie.The flight into Egypt is there, in the two children floating down the river, their mother murdered and her killer hunting them. For they have something their hunter wants: stolen cash, sewn, unbeknownst to them, into the little girl’s doll. The children come ashore at the home of an older woman who has a habit of taking in strays. In a climactic scene, the killer stands outside the house all night long.
The scene reminds us of Herod, sitting in his palace while his soldiers hunt for the child who has something he wants. Word has come of a true king, a child king. Visitors have come from the east in search of the child. Like Moses before him, Jesus has been cast into dark waters, while evil stalks the riverbanks, watching and waiting.
Like the old woman, the unlikely defender, in “The Night of the Hunter,” other unlikely defenders reach out their weak arms, one after another, “to shield and rescue, to spare and deliver.”
Music for Advent and Christmas:
The indie- rocker and Anglo Catholic, Sufjan Stevens once said in an Interview with Quietus,”I think the Good News is about grace and hope and love and a relinquishing of self to God. And I think the Good News of salvation is kind of relevant to everyone and everything . . . The basis of Christianity? It’s really a meal, it’s communion right? It’s the Eucharist. That’s it, it’s the sharing a meal with your neighbors, and what is that meal? It’s the body and blood of Christ. Basically, God offering himself up to you as nutrition. That’s pretty weird. It’s pretty weird if you think about that, but that’s the basis.” We recommend his album, Songs for Christmas, because of its fresh take on traditional Advent hymns like “Come Thou Font of Every Blessing”
The Staple Singers have been called “God’s greatest hit-makers.” Fronted by patriarch “Pops” Staples, they left their mark on American music with their soulful voices, social activism, religious conviction, and danceable music. We love Pops Stapels’ gospel-based songwriting and folksy guitar, Mavis Staples’ rich, raspy vocals and the beautiful harmonies of their children. Their album “The 25th Day of December” recorded in 1962 is a forgotten classic. Rolling Stone writes, “Whatever your religious beliefs, when you hear “The Savior is Born” you’ll want to get up and testify.” (Ditto: “Come Let us Adore Him” by the Lower Lights)
Choir of King’s College (Cambridge) A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols
A moving collection of Anglican hymns and Christmas carols, interspersed with spoken prayers.
Vince Guaraldi Trio, ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’
A piano jazz soundtrack the reminds everyone of the television special and Linus’ explanation of the “true meaning of Christmas”